Neil Armstrong is a personal hero of mine. Not because he was the first American to set foot on the moon, but because he was the first person to do so. He was the first person to set foot on any natural celestial body outside of the earth. That accomplishment is not a national accomplishment. It is an historic accomplishment. He didn’t do it alone. Thousands of people, thousands of hard workers and great minds made the Apollo missions possible. While it was an American effort (with German assist), in direct competition with the Soviet Union, the payoff could be celebrated by all — something Armstrong understood and stated in his immortal words upon hopping off the lander.
One of the things I admired about Armstrong (and all those who have travelled into space) was his enormous bravery. It takes a special type of person to sit on top of a rocket, essentially a controlled explosion once it ignites, and ride it into space. Seven G’s press down, threatening to crush lungs struggling for breath. The craft shakes violently and the roar is deafening. If any one of a thousand things goes wrong, a mission can be aborted. And then there’s the possibility of catastrophic failure, and death. It takes huge stones to get one’s mind past the risks inherent in space travel. Armstrong did it twice.
During his first mission, Gemini 8 in 1966, a malfunction led to his craft tumbling in its orbit. He and fellow crewman David Scott were seconds away from blacking out due to the forces being exerted against them, but Armstrong used his piloting skills to bring the craft under control, thus saving them. During the Apollo 11 mission, he and Buzz Aldrin were forced to intervene when the guidance computer was threatening to crash them into a field of boulders on descent to the moon. Once again seconds from disaster, and running out of fuel, Armstrong landed the craft safely. There was a time when NASA wanted space travel to be fully automated, with no input from the astronauts. They were to be passengers, nothing more. Thankfully, NASA was forced to reconsider that position, drawing its early pool of astronauts from a highly skilled selection of military and civilian test pilots. Neil Armstrong was one of those, and he showed the value of having skilled pilots aboard manned spacecraft.
Neil Armstrong was a test pilot, an astronaut, and an aeronautical engineer. He flew in space, walked on the moon, and afterwards spent decades teaching college. He spent his time in classrooms and piloting the most dangerous machines known to man. He was an integral part in advancing humankind. Someday there will be a museum in the Sea of Tranquility where he and Aldrin took their small steps. It could possibly be the most historic site in all of human history.