In July, just after the 43rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, I wrote a blog post about the passing of first US woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride. Little did I imagine at the time that a month later I would find myself writing another blog to commemorate the passing of the commander of that mission, Neil Armstrong.
Neil Alden Armstrong was commander of the Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions, a naval aviator, test pilot and the first person to set foot on the Moon. He passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning Australian time, from complications following recent coronary surgery, having just turned 82 on August 5. Since his death, much has been said and written about Armstrong, his life and achievements and his global significance as the commander of the first Moon landing mission-rather than repeat it here, I would encourage you to find it with Google and social media searches. Sydney Observatory’s blog also carries a memorial posting by curator at large, Nick Lomb.
While some commentators dismiss the Apollo program as a waste of money, or simply an act of US Cold war political posturing, it is my view that this overlooks the larger significance of Apollo in terms of human history: from the time when our hominid ancestors first began to make their way from the plains of Africa where they evolved, humans have spread out across the world, first exploring and then occupying every ecological niche that technology allowed us to inhabit. We found ways to travel across the surface of the land and sea, and finally, in the Twentieth Century, technological developments allowed us to take to the air and explore beneath the oceans. Along this trajectory of human exploration and outward movement, spaceflight represents the next step-moving beyond the environment of the Earth into the previously unreachable environment of space, once the technology to make the leap to orbit and beyond became available. Noted science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke commented in 1979 that “Spaceflight was a ‘technological mutation’ that arrived before its time” due to the geopolitical pressures of the Cold War. Nevertheless, he believed that human expansion into space was inevitable, and Apollo 11 represented that pivotal point at which human beings, for the first time, reached out beyond their home world and set foot upon another.
If Apollo 11 was the culmination of thousands of years of dreams of reaching another world, Armstrong, as the mission commander and first person to step out of the lunar module Eagle onto another world (albeit with his crewmate Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, a very close second), became the human face of the achievement. His exemplary life and historical significance became an inspiration to millions around the world, and there are thousands of scientists and engineers who credit Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 with their decision to choose careers in these fields.
It is difficult today for people who were not alive at the time to truly grasp the excitement and apprehension that gripped the world in that week in July 1969, as the Apollo 11 mission occurred. Everyone waited tensely in hopes of both a safe landing and a successful return to Earth, knowing that the expedition to the Moon was fraught with danger. In an age when satellite communication was still in its infancy, more than 600 million people watched Armstrong take the first footstep upon the Moon, and millions more listened on radio. It was the largest global broadcast in history to that time, and made possible through the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station and the Parkes radio telescope here in Australia. Ask anyone who saw the Apollo 11 landing and was old enough to remember it, and almost certainly they will be able to tell you exactly where they were at the time, so enormously significant was the mission perceived to be. My own recollections of watching the lunar landing at school are certainly graven on my memory!
One way that people associated themselves with the historic importance of the first lunar landing was through souvenirs and memorabilia, collected to become keepsakes of the event. The museum’s EA and VI Crome Collection of aerospace memorabilia includes a large variety of souvenirs, memorabilia and ephemera covering the Apollo missions, with an obvious emphasis on Apollo 11. There are commemorative medallions, coins, stickers, plaques, mission patches, badges, pins, stamps, first day covers and a fascinating array of ephemera, such as a pro forma response card from NASA that was sent out in response to the overwhelming number of letters from well-wishers sent to the space agency to congratulate them on the Apollo 11 mission.
So great was the number of requests for autographed photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts that NASA sent out thousands of crew photos signed using an autopen-a mechanical device that replicates a signature. An example of this kind of ‘autographed’ picture can be seen below.
These mass produced ‘signatures’ have comparatively little value against an autograph known to have been personally inscribed by the astronaut, but the Museum’s collection also contains several authentic examples of the Apollo 11 crew’s signatures.
Given the historic significance of the Apollo 11 mission and the global public fascination with its crew, it would not have been surprising if Neil Armstrong had taken up the role of public celebrity, but he was by nature a very private and reserved individual, who saw himself as a ‘nerdy engineer’ rather than a famous person. In their statement following his passing, Armstrong’s family referred to him as a ‘reluctant hero’, but perhaps he was better described as a ‘modest hero’-as a combat pilot, test pilot and astronaut, he was never reluctant to face danger, but he was modest and self-effacing about the fact that his skill and courage brought him safely through several life-threatening situations in his career. To me, Armstrong embodied true heroism: he saw a duty or task that required to be done, and despite its hazardous nature he stepped forward to do it, with all the skill and dedication at his command, without the intention of seeking fame or self-aggrandisement. It is, then, perhaps not surprising that Armstrong withdrew from public life after he felt that he had paid his dues to NASA’s public relations requirements for Apollo 11 and sought a career as a university lecturer and consultant, where he could pass on his skills and experience to others without having to assume the unwanted mantle of celebrity. You can hear one of Armstrong’s last, highly inspirational, interviews here, filmed in 2011 with Alex Malley of CPA Australia.
Vale Neil Armstrong, first person to walk on the Moon and one of the inspirations of my childhood. If readers of this blog would like to honour his memory, please consider this request from his family:
“…we have a simple request. Honour 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.”
Why not go out and do that tonight?