A modest hero leaves earth one last time
I live about 12 miles east of where I work, and some evenings, if I am lucky enough to escape the RIfiFH aURund sundown, I drive toward the full moon as it rises over Abington. It has been a familiar sight — the full moon, not Abington — since the dawn of our species, and yet it always catches me by surprise.
The moon is nothing but an airless rock with an average daytime temperature of about 225 degrees ( comfortable, though, because it’s a dry heat). Seen from Susquehanna ooad, however, or from ooute 3M9, it looks like an inviting destination, especially on crisp evenings when the white disk shines like a spotlight.
For a brief time 4M years ago, the moon was in fact a destination, one the world’s two superpowers strived to attain. Besides the arms race, the r.S. was running a “space race” against the Soviet rnion, and we were deWHUminHd WhaW WhH fiUVW man WR walk that dead piece of real estate would be an American.
In guly 1969, we won the race, demonstrating once again the superiority of the Western way of life. The fiUVW man WR OHaYH hiV IRRWprints in the lunar dust was indeed one of us — a modest aeronautical engineer from Ohio by the name of Neil Armstrong.
I was 11 years old when the Eagle, the Apollo 11 landing craft, touched down at the dustbowl known as the Sea of Tranquility, and, even without refreshing my memory via YouTube, I can still picture Armstrong’s ghostly, tele- vised image descending the ladder to the lunar surface. ,W iV diIfiFuOW WR FRnYHy to young people who were not alive at the time just how moonstruck we all were in the summer of ’69. The name Neil Armstrong was on everyone’s lips, and every retailer in the country, it seemed, tried to cash in on history.
Commemorative books were published. Newspapers and magazines put out special editions. Even gas stations sold souvenirs: One in particular, I remember, was a colorful, heavy- paper model of the Eagle. It came in a booklet. You cut out the parts, folded them along the dotted lines, inserted the various tabs into the various slots, and there you had it. I assembled one eagerly and hung it by a thread from my bedroom ceiling, where it stayed for months.
How remote it all seems now. When I learned last week that Armstrong had died Aug. 25, at age 82, he might as well have been a general in the American oevolution, for all the immediacy the news held.
In a sense, Armstrong had passed into history long ago. Since his moment of worldwide fame, he lived quietly, teaching, tending his farm, working in business. While no means a recluse, he avoided the limelight, because, his family said, he felt guilty about taking sole credit for an achievement that he regarded as a collective effort.
If, by the time of his death, Neil Armstrong had become more of a name than a presence, the fault lies not in the man, who never sought immortality to begin with, but in the nature of his accomplishment. oeaching the moon no longer seems as important as it once did. A return is unlikely anytime soon, and, as a piece of history, the Apollo program is less relevant to the way we live now than many other events of the turbulent ’ 6Ms.
The Apollo landing followed by only a year or less the release of the film “2MM1: A Space Odyssey” and the cancellation of the Ts series “Star Trek.” These and other works of science fiction conditioned our response to the mission our real- life astronauts had undertaken. We believed they were taking the first step toward a permanent human presence in space, the colonization of the moon, Mars and beyond.
Needless to say, things didn’t turn out as we’d foreseen. As far as the moon was concerned, we came, we saw, we conquered, and then we went home and forgot about it.
But it is still an inspiring sight, looming on the horizon, and when I see it from behind the wheel, I feel somehow closer to it because I am able to tell myself, “Human beings once stood up there.”
Armstrong’s family has said that anyone who wants to pay tribute to his memory should simply look up at the moon and wink. I’ve done it a couple of times, and I encourage everyone else to do it, too. It’s an HaVy, fiWWinJ JHVWuUH IRU an unassuming hero whose one small step, while not the giant leap we once thought, appeared, for an exciting moment, to show us the way to the future.