Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong

It's actually a pleasure to turn from more stressful matters and consider the end of a noble life. Neil Armstrong was one of the more reluctant celebrities of our time, in terms of capitalizing on or making a fuss from his fame, but he wasn't neurotic about it, either. He just lived quietly in Cincinnati in retirement, teaching engineering in college for a while, and served on the Challenger investigation committee. Unlike his crewmates on Apollo 11, he didn't write a memoir.

NASA's official policy regarding crew selection in the Moon program years (and perhaps today, though I don't know) was that all the astronauts were fully qualified, and any of them could do any job that an astronaut would be called on to do. Nevertheless, particular astronauts were picked for particular assignments, and accounts have confirmed that factors like relative qualifications and crew compatibility did play a role. Armstrong turned out to be a good choice for the commander of the first lunar mission. He was, shall we say, more stable than a few of his fellows, and less of a goofball than some others. (Can you imagine what it would have been like if Eagle had had to abort the landing - which it almost did; Armstrong had trouble finding a space clear enough of boulders to land in - and Pete Conrad on Apollo 12 had been the first man on the moon? This is the guy whose words from the lunar surface were, "Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small [step] for Neil, but it's a long one for me.") It is possible to bask in celebrity and still be respectable about it - John Glenn managed - but Armstrong's way may have been best for his specific position.

Yes, I watched the lunar landing, and Armstrong and Aldrin's walkabout, on TV. I did so more because I knew it was a historic event, unprecedented and sure to be remembered, than because I really wanted to see it. (And I had trouble making out the famous words.) I was supportive of the space program, but I didn't follow it with obsession or in detail. It was less captivating than it now sounds. I have to remind people who only know the lunar landing program from the recent movies and TV dramatizations that the real thing had much poorer video, everything took a lot longer to happen, and there was no stirring music behind it. That makes a difference. These were engineering test flights, really, and the patriotic symbolism sat a bit uneasily atop them. That, I'm sure, was Armstrong's view.

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