Farewell, Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

We are, by nature, competitive and somewhat obsessed by firsts. Whether it’s Olympic gold, the first man in space, the first man on the moon or the first person to climb Everest, to be first is culturally a crowning achievement.

Somewhat ironically, though, those that have been “first” are among the few who see through this illusion. When asked who first stepped foot on the summit of Mt Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary refused to answer, noting it was a joint-effort, that he could not have accomplished the feat without Tenzing Norgay. Expedition leader, Colonel Hunt, also noted, “They reached it together, as a team.” In the same way, Neil Armstrong shunned the notion that he was “the first man on the moon” or the “first man to walk on the moon” noting that whether it was the thin hull of the Eagle or the rubber sole of their boots, neither man actually touched the moon. Both Neil and Buzz landed in the Sea of Tranquillity at the same time. They were the first men on the moon.

Although Neil and Buzz ventured down to the moon in the Eagle, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins and a whole host of other astronauts all put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of human exploration, to further our scientific knowledge of the moon and man’s ability to explore space. This in no way detracts from Neil Armstrong’s accomplishment as commander of the mission, but it puts it in a perspective he himself endorsed, that the lunar landing was a team effort.

When it comes to the actual landing, flight analyst Morris Jones notes.

Other astronauts could have landed but he was really the best choice and sometimes I think without him they wouldn’t have landed on that attempt. They would have got home safely but probably would have had to abort the landing and try again. Armstrong played a critical role in making that landing succeed.

Neil Armstrong’s heart was racing at 150 beats per minute as he sought to land the Eagle clear of a boulder field in the Sea of Tranquillity. Neil and Buzz sounded unusually calm during the descent, their professionalism taking priority over their nerves as the fuel gauge within the Eagle ran to empty. They touched down with just seconds to spare, making history as the first men to visit another celestial world.

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were at the tip of the most remarkable scientific technological endeavour in the history of humanity, the culmination of tens of thousands of scientists and engineers working together toward a goal that was decades ahead of its time. It took a remarkable amount of courage to strap into a Saturn V rocket built using slide-rules, pen and paper and a computer system that pales in comparison to today’s mobile phones.

Neil Armstrong will be remembered as the lead in this outstanding accomplishment, and for his historic comment, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those eleven, brief words capture the essence of Apollo.

Although critics would note that NASA has not repeated the achievements of its glory days, I’d argue that the critics are wrong, that they’re looking at US space accomplishments from only one, narrow perspective.

I would rate the launch of Pioneer and Voyager, the advent of commercial satellites, the establishment of SETI, the reach of Viking, WMAP, the Allen array, the Hubble space telescope, the Curiosity mission to Mars, Cassini, the proposed James Webb telescope, etc, as extending mankind’s giant leap. In fact, I’d struggle to find a single space exploration project, either by NASA, the Chinese, the Russians or private enterprise that hasn’t made a significant contribution to mankind’s progress in space. Perhaps they’re not as epic as Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon for the first time, perhaps some of them are more incremental, but they all take us forward into a new phase in the history of mankind, the space age.

I’m thankful for men and women like Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins who have pushed back the bounds of the unknown, who reached out to explore and understand the cosmos. Be it a computer server crunching radio telescope results in the basement at SETI or a rover sitting on Mars, be it someone walking again on the moon or SpaceX launching commercial resupply for the International Space Station, we are continuing to step forward into a bold, new future. Neil Armstrong’s one small step continues to inspire humanity to leap forward.

Rest in peace, Neil.

127 thoughts on “Farewell, Neil Armstrong

  1. I feel one of the key indicators of how America has lost its way this last generation is that we no longer have the balls to do what guys like Armstrong, Aldrin, Glenn et. al. did – we are so much smaller a nation for that. Vale Neil – not just one of this age’s greatest heroes, but all age’s greatest heroes!

    • It certainly took a tremendous amount of courage to strap into the cockpit of an Apollo launch, to be sitting on top of the most powerful rocket ever built, trusting a million components to work flawlessly. Like you, I’d like to see more heroes outside of a sporting arena. As much as I love football, Armstrong, Aldrin and Colins, etc, really did have the right stuff. I think though, at times we can lose sight of heroic achievements in other fields, like Professor Ian Frazer who developed the first vaccine against cancer. Not as spectacular as walking on the moon, but another legendary figure in our times.

  2. Well said. Its nice remember the amazing things that we have accomplished and the people who were willing to make them happen.

    • It’s hard to quantify the impact of things like Apollo, but this was no modern day pyramid building on NASA’s part. Apollo undertook real science that progressed our understanding of the universe and opened the way for so much of what we take for granted today, like Hubble, etc.

  3. Reminds me of something Adam Steltzner said about the recent Mars landing — that it’s a particularly good thing about accomplishments like this that they require many people working together.

    • You’re absolutely right. Society is about how we get more done together than we ever could alone. And one accomplishment leads to another, building on success. I’m excited about Mars Curiosity. It’s another step forward. I know Armstrong was a big proponent of manned space flight, and we’ll get there again, but I suspect it will take a paradigm shift, like the commercial exploration of asteroids for precious metals, the establishment of a manufacturing lab in space, etc before we’ll see a significant change in manned space exploration. In the meantime, the robotic exploration will continue to propel us forward.

      • Exploration for its own sake is best done with robots, really. The reason we never returned to the Moon was simple — there’s nothing THERE. If they had found gold or oil, we’d be living there right now. People tend to forget that exploration is spurred by the stuff you get. Columbus wasn’t exploring for the hell of it, he was looking for a short route to spices and other valuable things.

        Piloted missions will come after we land someplace that has stuff on it worth bringing back. For now, robots do beautifully.

      • You’re absolutely right… there has to be a paradigm shift in technology and motive (as you point out). At the moment, getting men to Mars is an order of magnitude greater than anything we can accomplish. It will come, but it’s not as simple as travelling on to the next bus stop. You might enjoy these posts on similar topics…


        PS. Great chatting with you

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  5. It was a bit hard to select the Like button, as it is sad that such an American icon has passed. However, I really liked your tribute to him. I am now thinking of my visits to the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas and their great exhibits on the Space Race. Armstrong was an integral part of our space program.

  6. As you point out, we rely on satellites now. For me that puts Armstrong’s and his team’s great achievement into perspective. I check out my WP blog’s ‘hits’ and take for granted that they are from every continent on Earth; I have email conversations with people in every time zone. I don’t even recall which continent you’re on because you’re right here in my computer.

    • ha… I’m in Australia, but, yes, it seems like you’re right next door in this global village. From the fantastic shot of the whole Earth taken from Apollo 8, the world has become a much smaller place.

      • From the whole Earth to the pale blue dot … and Sagan was right. It IS the more accurate view of our world.

        I recall being amazed while I was watching the Curiosity landing and thinking to myself, “The only reason we can do this and listen as live as we can 14 minutes into the past is because OMFG WE HAVE A SATCOM NETWORK IN ORBIT AROUND THE FREAKIN PLANET MARS!” O_O

  7. How depressing to find that you, in an otherwise fine tribute, are still reporting the nonsensical misquote. Neil, in his sloppy, farm-boy, inarticulate way fully intended us to hear “That is one small step for a man; one giant leap for [hu]mankind.” The remark makes no sense without the indefinite article.

    • There is some debate about the ‘a’ simply being lost in static, but sometimes the greatest statements defy the rules of grammar. Given all Armstrong had been through to get to the point of standing on the pad of the lander, about to step off onto the Lunar surface, I’m OK with it as the omission can be seen as a figure of speech (ellipsis) highlighting and accentuating the tension in the moment.

    • With all due respect, give the men (both the astronaut and the blogger/writer) a break! If I were about to step or just stepped on the MOON, the least of my worries would be grammar… Also, I was surprised about the “sloppy, farm-boy” remark. It did not add anything positive to the conversation.

  8. Beautifully said, Peter.

    All major steps of progress are joint efforts. Without coalescing efforts to make them happen, and without humanity’s inherent drive forward to make them count, they would just be occasional steps out of the line.

    Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong.

  9. He is still an inspiration to me. It’s sad that he’s no longer with us. Rest in peace.
    I also believe that NASA still does great things. Great post.

    • Yeah, there’s no doubt Neil Armstrong will continue to inspire future generations. Can’t you just picture it, the Neil Armstrong space port on the moon, or on Mars? One day, perhaps.

  10. A great post and tribute. Neil will be always remembered. And yes, we remember those who are 1st and thereafter many other achieve the same target but those are not remembered as the person who is 1st. Neil was 1st.

    Rest in peach, Neil Armstrong

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  12. I grew up with my older brother and a million others dreaming about being Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin…. it is those dreams that have and will continue to inspire so much creativity and possibility for the future of us all….great tribute and post…

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  14. Thank you for this lovely post. It is one of my enduring childhood memories, seeing the lunar landings. It was the first time I was allowed to stay up all night and I remember when the Apollo capsule eventually returned to Earth, we all held our breath until the astronauts were safely free of their capsule and back in that helicopter. For me the whole Apollo programme shows what humans COULD achieve together, if they put their greed and petty differences aside and worked as a TEAM, a guess an idea that Neil Armstrong was always keen to promote, too.

  15. Very well written.And yes you were right. I am no good in history that I only knew Neil Armstrong as the first man to step on the moon I doesn’t know the names of the whole team. you will always be remembered Neil Armstrong.

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  17. Reblogged this on नेता जी कहिन and commented:
    May His Soul Rest in Peace….”Today, Neil Armstrongs spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown. That legacy will endure – sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step.”

  18. Being a team member seems paradoxical, particularly in this case. Armstrong brought exceptional skill to the mission and was chosen, in part, because he remained calm and professional during a mishap in an earlier Gemini mission. NASA’s faith in him, as you point out, was well-founded because he landed the LEM at the last moment before abort. On the other hand, every team relies on strong members, as every chain relies on every link. We should all be the sort of team members Armstrong was. Thanks for this excellent tribute.

    • Oh, he was exceptional among an exceptional group of astronauts. You’re absolutely right. And that makes his humility in downplaying what he accomplished all the more extraordinary. He knew exactly what it took to reach the surface of the moon, and knew he owed a great deal to the tens of thousands of engineers and scientists that made it possible.

  19. Many ignorant people knock space exploration as a waste of time and money – what they fail to see is that if we want to ensure the survival of the human race, we will one day have to leave this rock and establish colonies elsewhere.
    You only have to look at the story of the Dodo (and countless others) to see what happens to species that live only in one isolated place.
    Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins helped vastly towards this goal, and thankfully the work continues.

  20. Excellent post. Watching him step foot on the moon when I was just a young lad of nine shaped how I looked at space the rest of my life. Alas, I was never smart (or brave) enough to do the kinds of things those guys with “The Right Stuff” had, my heart and mind have always been in the cosmos. RIP.

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  22. Great recap. Neil, send us some dispatches from the wild blue yonder.

    Some of Neil Armstrong’s last words on the space program changes under President Obama:

    “A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the President that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program,” Armstrong, 79, said in a statement to a Senate subcommittee reviewing NASA’s new space plan. “I believe the President was poorly advised.”

    Source: Christian Science Monitor
    Link: http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2010/0514/Neil-Armstrong-blasts-Obama-s-plan-for-NASA

  23. Great post…. great tribute. I have felt SO incredibly sad after hearing about the death of Neil Armstrong. He took his famous first steps on the moon just days after my 10th birthday. I can remember my mother and father sitting all three of their young daughters in front of the television to watch this historic moment, and then our family of 5 walking out on the front porch to gaze up at the moon! What a memory I will NEVER forget! RIP Neil Armstrong.

  24. The day after the first human launched satellite, Sputnik, I was born. My early years were consumed with thoughts of cowboys, and astronauts. Eventually, I became an engineer, and designed parts for missiles, rockets and satellites (even toys) eventually starting a world-wide semiconductor company.

    All of that because of the excitement surrounding the NASA space program, and the deeds of derring-do accomplished by the men and women willing to fling themselves into space on the tip of a rocket.

    • Wow… sounds like you’ve had quite a ride and got your hands dirty putting these things together. Nice to hear from someone that’s been part of the team making space exploration happen.

      • A lot of people behind the scenes who never had a chance of making it into space, but our parts are there…that’s some consolation. Sad to realize how old that generation is becoming, and that not long from now, none of the moon crew will be alive.

  25. Kinda wish most “innovators” today had the humility to say “team work” and great leap for all… but since those days people has gotten selfish. NASA need more funding, I’m still waiting for a job spot as Lunar base management crew (legal area).

    That man is my childhood model. I wanted to be an air force pilot because of him (too bad I over grew and can’t fit the cockpit by inches). A real hero, one that I salute.

      • I’ll take either lunar lawyer or lunar cop. The latter sounds cooler. I shall preserve Armstrong’s foot print in a big glass box. But I’m pretty sure that instead of NASA, it might be a Virgin Galactic base. NASA needs a small part of the 2/3 of trillion dollars Pentagon has a year (19 billion is kinda of a joke for a nation that brags about being advanced in science). When EU got the Higgs first it was a blow for them.

        And thanks for the follow…

  26. Pingback: A Fitting Farewell « Discovering Infinity and Beyond

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    • Yes… Although I’m not sure how, they must have gone looking for posts about Neil Armstrong and liked this one. 2500 hits in a single day is a record for my blog, although it’s back to its regular 70-100 views per day now

  30. Pingback: Zum Tod von Astronaut Neil Armstrong | Willkommen in meinem Blog

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  32. Neil Armstrong is a direct descendant of the first Armstrong, Viking Siward Fairbairn. It seems possible or not, that Armstrong will be cremated. Just like the Vikings.

  33. He will rest in peace as soon as the little remains of his body particle is taken to MOON and spread.

    may god bless with this

  34. Great blog. We need men like Neil Armstrong who have the courage to take the big steps for our world. Now we need some others as we look toward Mars…That is going to be an even greater challenge and I hope those trailblazers have the courage and intelligence to do as good a job as Neil did. Fingers crossed.

    • Yeah, foreign policy is not a forte of mine and I’m not a US citizen, so this comment is probably overly-simplistic and naive, but I do hope the US eventually spends more on rockets to space than on rockets, bullets and bombs here on Earth. The next Neil Armstrong is probably alive right now, waiting for the rest of us to figure out our priorities, develop the technology and send him/her to Mars.

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