Engineer on the Moon
For people in my generation, that “one small step” taken by “a man,” in July of 1969 as Neil Armstrong, human being, set foot for the first time ever on another heavenly body, was a transforming event. It defined who we were as citizens of a remarkable experiment called America, a country so convinced we could do anything we set our collective mind to, that we got to the moon in a decade. Even more, that step spoke volumes about who we were as human beings, reaching out beyond our own planet in our quest for something beyond ourselves, something previously unknown. It was the ultimate symbol for the human journey, and whether he liked it or not, Armstrong, the first moonwalker, instantly became the public face of the entire human race.
For Armstrong, who died over the weekend at the age of 82, the role of spokesman for humanity was not an easy fit. Armstrong, like many great pilots, was an engineer, too. He saw the explorations of the Apollo program as being what they were, brilliantly orchestrated voyages that depended on the genius, ingenuity and teamwork of thousands of talented people. Armstrong saw himself as a part of that bigger picture.
The role of critical cog in a splendid machine is counter to the concept of the hero pilot that has grown up around the Lindberghs and Yeagers and Earharts of our shared aviation mythology, but that is how he, forever humble, saw himself. That didn’t prevent Armstrong from being a exceedingly skillful aviator. Buzz Aldrin, who also went for a stroll on Luna Firma a few decades ago, called Armstrong the best pilot he’d ever known.
But a natural celebrity he was not. Armstrong was a famously private man, one who naturally shied from the public eye, though he was quietly passionate about a few important things. One of the issues that inspired him was education — he was staunchly proud of being an alumnus of Purdue’s school of engineering and supported that institution with his time and energy. Another was manned exploration of space. In his later years, Armstrong publicly called for the administration's financial commitment to our storied space program, which for the past couple of decades has been under-funded and under-appreciated by the public. Armstrong's hope was for astronauts to return to the moon and perhaps, one day, venture far beyond that. So despite his natural affinity for numbers and teamwork and solutions, Armstrong knew the grand significance of that one small step.
If Neil Armstrong, smart, courageous and supremely talented, never fit our image of astronaut, it wasn’t because of any shortcoming of his. It was, rather, our attempt to impose upon him the old mythos the heroic. Neil Armstrong was a new kind of hero, a man who saw the role of pilot, astronaut and engineer clearly and took pride in the work of the whole. He lived a remarkable life based upon that vision, a life that along the way included many, many steps, and one giant one that those of us who were around to see it, will remember always.