Thank You Neil Armstrong
By the Menzoid
Unless you were camped out on the moon, you likely know by now that a giant died last Saturday.
Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, passed away following complications from cardiovascular procedures.
Even though I was only seven at the time of the moon landing, I still clearly recall the feeling of optimism and excitement that accompanied this historic achievement. NASA’s profound project was such a welcome counterweight to other events at the time. An unpopular war was being waged in Vietnam, and 1969 was the zenith of the hippie generation as many youths chose to drop out, toke up, and purposefully forgot to practice personal hygiene – the grand-pappy of today’s Occupy Movement.
The polar opposite was occurring with the over-achievers toiling for NASA; they were busily making intricate calculations to pull off what would emerge as the most grandiose odyssey in the history of our planet. And yes, folks, it WAS rocket science.
On the night of the moon landing, like all our neighbours on our stretch of Lawrence Avenue West in north Toronto, my family watched the event in the backyard. The lawnmower’s extension cord was plugged into our black-and-white Viking television set, which had been temporarily relocated from the living room.
When I think back, l sometimes try to piece together exactly why we chose to view the lunar landing outdoors. Maybe it was all about escaping the oppressive heat of the house (nobody we knew had the now commonplace luxury that is air conditioning.) Or maybe, just maybe, we wanted to experience some sort of connection with the moon by gazing upon that bright ivory orb a quarter-million miles away… and hoping beyond hope that we might just observe a tiny speck descending to the lunar surface, a steel capsule containing Earthlings far from home.
It was a time of wonder and awe, to be sure. And given the immense logistical challenges inherent to the space program – there’s more computing power in a Toyota Prius than what the Apollo mission had at its disposal – is it any wonder that when the lunar-lander touched down upon the waterless Sea of Tranquility many of those stoic men of science at ground control in Houston weeped? After all, Armstrong’s big white boot making contact with the surface of the moon was the achievement of the millennium.
As well, when Armstrong made his instantly famous speech – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – it was an utterance of such profound beauty that I’m hard-pressed to think of another line in English literature that comes close to the perfection achieved by those 11 words (even though Armstrong did mean to say “a man” as opposed to simply “man.”.)
Notably, of all the famous Americans I can think of, Neil Armstrong comes across as the most … Canadian. He was soft spoken, reserved, and self-effacing. If anyone had earned bragging rights, it was surely this man who was the first to prance upon a patch of real estate that wasn’t part of terra firma. But he shunned the spotlight. Said Armstrong in 2000 in one of his rare public appearances: “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
Armstrong last went public in 2010 with his concerns about President Barack Obama’s space policy that has shifted attention away from a return to the moon and has emphasized private companies developing spaceships. He testified before Congress, saying he had “substantial reservations” regarding a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”
Alas, whereas once upon a time NASA astronauts were our greatest explorers, today cutbacks have reduced them to cosmic hitchhikers.
But the memories of that magic summer of ’69 remain. Indeed, in the months leading up to the moon mission, I lived and breathed the space program. All my favourite toys were astronaut-themed, from Major Matt Mason to Billy Blastoff. And I drank copious quantities of Tang, knowing this was the beverage being consumed by Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins as they washed down their protein pills.
Most of all, I remember keeping a scrapbook. Every single newspaper and magazine story leading up to the lunar landing was carefully cut-out and pasted into that book. I cherished that scrapbook and kept it carefully preserved for years. But much like the space program itself, my scrapbook was eventually forgotten and misplaced. To this day that scrapbook of clippings remains my Rosebud, that one item from my childhood I’d trade almost anything to have back.
Today they will bury Neil Armstrong in Cincinnati. It will be a private affair. And in the department of cosmic coincidence, it is expect that a rare blue moon will be in Earth’s orbit tonight. How fitting: while Armstrong is heaven-bound, his footprints remain preserved on the lunar surface. So as you gaze upon that great lustrous orb tonight, raise a toast to that quiet and reserved engineer with the pocket protector and white socks; a man who showed a seven-year-old boy – and an entire planet – that even impossible dreams can indeed come true.