ASTRONAUTS do not like to be called heroes. Their standard riposte to such accusations is to point out that it requires the efforts of hundreds of thousands of backroom engineers, mathematicians and technicians to make space flight possible. They are right, too: at the height of its pomp, in 1966, NASA was spending about 4.4% of the American government's entire budget, employing something like 400,000 workers among the agency and its contractors.I wasn't among those who watched live on television. My father and I were backpacking in the Bighorn Crags, part of what was then the Idaho Primitive Area and is now the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area.
But it never works. For Neil Armstrong, who commanded Apollo 11, the mission that landed men on the moon on July 20th 1969, the struggle against heroism seemed particularly futile. The achievement of his crew, relayed live on television, held the entire planet spellbound. On their return to Earth, the astronauts were mobbed. Presidents, prime ministers and kings jostled to be seen with them. Schools, buildings and roads were named after them. Medals were showered upon them. A whirlwind post-flight tour took them to 25 countries in 35 days. (The Economist)
That's a photo of Yellowjacket Lake from just about the spot where we camped for a couple of nights. It's not a photo we took. It's from IdahoAlpineZone.com. Even though it's been more than 40 years since we were there, I still remember the view.
Since we were there and I didn't see the landing live, I saw only still photos of the landing until later that winter when Dad brought home a movie on 16mm film. We got out my grandfathers movie projector, threaded the film through the mechanisms, and set up a screen in our TV room downstairs. I don't remember whether the film had sound, or if we watched in silence. I do remember watching it repeatedly in the few days we were able to keep the film tin at home.
When I think of the technology we had then - it was another 5 years before I got my first hand calculator - the extraordinary courage of every astronaut of that era astonishes me. And it reminds me of the extraordinary things human beings can do when we put our minds to it.
Here's a link to the story in the New York Times. Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong has collected his favorite links.1
He links to an extraordinary statement from the family that ends with these words:
For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.
1I've only read the obituaries in the Times and The Economist, so I can't say that Ed is right in his judgment that "The best Armstrong obituary, bar none, can be found at the Economist", but it is very, very good. If you read The Economist regularly, as I do, you know its obituaries are always good. Maybe it's just because Neil Armstrong was such an iconic figure for those of us who were boys in the late 1960s – too young to worry about service in Vietnam, but old enough to be aware of what's going on in the world – but I the The Economist's obituary for Neil Armstrong may be the best I've ever read.