Neil Armstrong passed away yesterday at the age of 82. I always felt a certain affinity for him because: a) he was Neil Armstrong and I was a kid in the 70s; and b) he grew up in the same general geographic area as me: born in Wapakoneta, OH (my family spent some time in Sydney, OH) and went to school at Purdue. But, on some level, I resisted picking him for personal hero worship – not because of any deficiency with him, but because I’ve always had a tendency to gravitate to second banana types or less obvious folks. Neil was the shining star. I felt bad for Michael Collins – go all that way and be the one who has to circle the moon while the other guys get to walk on the moon.
So, I got to wondering why Armstrong’s death hit me so hard. We were driving home from a kid’s soccer game, Amy told me that Twitter was full of the reports of his death. And I felt a real pang of sadness that I never get with your average celebrity. Now, Armstrong was a man with a lot of heroic qualities; but I can’t think that my feelings about his passing had a lot to do with his qualities as an individual. He was heroic, but not uniquely so. He was not John Galt or some sort of ubermensch that went to the moon by himself. In fact, for me, one of the most heroic things about him was his humility in his life following the moon landing. Not many would have conducted themselves with such grace in his place. Still, with respect to the moon landing itself, there were and are other individuals who would have performed as heroically under the same circumstances. My pang of regret at his passing had more to do with what Armstrong represented. He was iconic.
Armstrong was America at its very best. An America that bent itself and its resources on a noble goal. Not to make myself look too wishy-washy, but I recall a moment when I was maybe 26 or 27 and I was thinking about the moon landing. And the full magnitude of that accomplishment really hit me. I cried a little bit. Thinking of the hundreds of thousands of years of humanity that spent nights looking up at the moon and wondering about it. And only now, within a couple of years of my birth, humans – humans from my country no less – had the audacity and the ability to leave the planet and go there. And Neil Armstrong was the tip of that particular spear who first set foot on the damn moon. We live in the future!
But, his passing represents the passing of that time; when we strove and accomplished. It was akin to the feeling when Discovery made that final flight. It wasn’t because I had a particular investment in Discovery; it was, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, because there was nothing waiting in the wings behind Discovery. When Gemini gave way to Apollo, that was a moment of excitement, not melancholy. Similarly, part of what hurts about Armstrong’s passing is that there do not seem to be astronauts waiting in the wings to repeat or advance what Armstrong and NASA did in 1969. I read that the youngest person who walked on the moon was born in 1938. His passing is a reminder that, in many ways, we have become a lesser, meaner people; less inclined or able to strive together toward great things.
Rest in Peace Commander.