I wept at the news of Neil Armstrong’s death today. I wept for the man and his family, I wept for what the man symbolized, and I wept for America. As the sad news sank in, I was transported back in time. I was once again in front of that old, black and white television set in my parents’ house in Ohio. It was almost 11:00 PM, the room was dark except for the light coming from the TV, and my dad was sitting beside me on the couch.
Several hours before, our nation watched and listened as the Lunar Module Eagle, separated from the Command Module Columbia. Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin left Command Module Pilot Michael Collins in lunar orbit, as they began their historic descent to the surface of the Moon. Soon, a voice called out declining altitude and velocity numbers. The details of the lunar surface grew clearer out a triangular window, and the shadow of the LM came into view. From Mission Control in Houston, we finally heard, “We copy you down, Eagle.” And then came the famous response:
“Houston … uh … Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
On that warm summer evening of July 21, 1969, I was mesmerized by the grainy picture of a fellow Ohioan, a farm boy from the small town of Wapakoneta on the other side of the state, poised on the ladder of the LM. I held my breath while Neil Armstrong described how far the pads of the lander had sunk into the powdery surface, only about one to two inches, he reported. Then, he said, “I’m going to step off the LM now.” With his right hand still on the ladder, he spoke for himself, and for all of humankind.
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The American space program of the late 1950s and 1960s, and men like Neil Armstrong, inspired an entire generation of young people to enter the fields of science, engineering, and mathematics. America was strong, and the undisputed leader in manned and unmanned space exploration. To an eleven-year-old kid from Ohio, it seemed that even the sky was no longer the limit, and that anything we, as a nation, could imagine, was possible.
Today, when I heard that Neil Armstrong, American, First Man on the Moon had died, I wept for the loss of a boyhood hero … and I wept for the loss of America’s once-great space program. With American astronauts now having to hitchhike to the International Space Station, it feels like our nation has lost its desire, determination, and passion to lead the rest of the world into space. Along with that loss of passion, I fear that our space program is rapidly losing the very skills and abilities to once again be the leader in humankind’s exploration of the final frontier.
Neil Armstrong’s family has made a request of us, as we mourn the loss of a most humble, great American:
“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.”
I know I will.