August 2012 was an eventful month for space science. The Curiosity rover landed on Mars beginning the next exciting chapter of understanding that planet's many mysteries. On August 25, Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the Moon, passed away at the age of 82. Armstrong's legacy is one of achievement and quiet encouragement for explorers in all walks of life. He was no recluse, but unlike other astronauts he did not capitalize on the uniqueness of his experience to build a political career. Few people can say that they have been in a similar position to Armstrong, that they have gone beyond the realm of previous human experience. Fewer still have lived a life as genuine and forthright as Armstrong's.
Neil Armstrong's career focused from the beginning on aeronautics. This trajectory lead him to be drafted out of University to be a Navy fighter pilot during the Korean War. He returned to University after three years of service, receiving a Bachelors in aeronautical engineering from Purdue and eventually a Masters from the University of Southern California. Before entering the space program he was a test pilot for jet and rocket-powered aircraft. Armstrong flew twice in NASA missions: first on Gemini 8, then on Apollo 11. It was on July 20th, 1969 that he, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins landed on the Moon.
The dueling space programs of the USA and USSR were an aspect of the wider conflict between the 20th Century superpowers. The space race began as an offshoot of a World War II military program to develop a frighteningly powerful weapon, originally a Nazi plan for a missile capable of flight from Germany to New York City. After the war, German scientists were instrumental in developing rocketry for both the United States and the Soviet Union. When Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, was launched in 1957, it demonstrated technological and military superiority of Soviet science. By the end of the 1950s both Moscow and Washington had developed rockets capable of delivering atomic weapons to any point on Earth.
But the engineers and scientists who developed these technologies did not make them for war alone. Nuclear power and rocketry fulfilled a dream they had as children, of exploring space and giving light to the world. This conflict of hope and annihilation is evocative, and it is especially interesting because it is not the creation of these weapons that we remember fondly. What we remember is the first transmission from Sputnik, the first human footprint on the face of the jewel that hangs suspended in the sky.
Armstrong and Aldrin became political footballs upon returning from the Moon. They represented an achievement that could be nationalized and used for political ends as examples of American exceptionalism and military might. To a lesser extent so too did Gagarin and Komorov. But the astronauts who risked life and limb traveling to an unimaginable frontier were generally interested in peace and reconciliation. During Armstrong's spacewalk a ceremony was made of leaving messages from presidents and world leaders for future explorers. It is telling that it included a golden olive branch and memorials to the Apollo 1 astronauts and cosmonauts Gagarin and Komarov, who had recently died in training and spaceflight accidents.
Despite becoming an important political symbol, hailed as the ultimate achievement in the race to make history in space, Armstrong declined to associate himself with politics. In doing this, the first human steps on another world don't belong to any single group but instead to all mankind. Armstrong privately capitalized on his experiences directly, teaching aeronautics at the University of Cincinnati and accepting spokesperson positions for various American companies. One could say that Armstrong was definitive of his generation, he was intelligent, moderately conservative, and apolitical. Like Gagarin, and Aldrin, and so many other astronauts he believed that space exploration was a boon to all humanity; his interest in science was personal rather than jingoistic. Engineer before statesman, pilot before partisan. He is remembered fondly by many for inspiring them and taking care to carry their dreams with grace. Armstrong's family requested that anyone wanting to honor his memory just look to the moon. And wink.
Photo: Arjan Almekinders // CC 2.0