Neil Armstrong was genuinely modest. Never did he boast of his accomplishments. He didn’t regale people with his heroism in finding a way to land the Eagle amid the boulders of an alien world with his fuel running out.
But he didn’t have ice water in his veins, as it sometimes seemed. His pulse hit 156 during the moon landing.
And he wasn’t completely silent. I have proof. When I heard that Neil Armstrong died, I drove to the office and rifled through a drawer where I keep really special stuff that I don’t want to get lost amid the clutter of my journalistic existence. Found it: a printout of an e-mail from the first man on the moon.
He actually sent me a couple of them. The first came after I blogged about Armstrong and fellow Apollo astronauts when they criticized the Obama administration’s plans to kill the Constellation program. That first e-mail from Armstrong was cordial but firm. He annotated my blog item paragraph by paragraph, disagreeing with various points I made. Obviously I was thrilled and astonished, and made sure to brag to my podmates that I’d gotten an e-mail from Neil Armstrong. How cool is that? I called my mom. Jaded journalist turns to mush with e-mail from one of his heroes.
Armstrong said he wasn’t interested in seeing it published. So I’ll respect that. I wrote him earlier this year, asking for guidance on another subject related to space policy, and he wrote back at length but said he hadn’t carefully thought through everything he was saying and didn’t want it published. So, again, it’ll just stay in my files.
The fact is, he wasn’t always taciturn. He just didn’t like public attention. Particularly as of late he seemed to take seriously the idea that he needed to lobby for space exploration. He strongly favored a return trip to the moon as part of a broader exploration strategy. He was greatly upset by the decision to cancel Constellation, and that anger seemed to inspire him to become more vocal after so many decades of privacy.
He believed in aerospace engineering. There was passion there, even if he never showed it much in public.
And he did, in fact, talk about Apollo from time to time. Here’s a story I did 13 years ago in the Style section about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins making public appearances in the capital on the 30th anniversary of the moon landing.
Men Talk About Moon.
That’s the screaming banner headline, 30 years later. Perhaps it lacks some of the jaw-dropping awesomeness of the original version, the one that ran with those ghostly black-and-white images of Neil and Buzz getting out of a spaceship and walking on the moon (the moon!) and planting a flag and hopping around and basically blowing everyone’s minds back here on Earth.
Now, all these decades later, moonwalking is a thing that is merely commemorated on certain anniversaries. Such moments are a bit awkward, as we struggle to pay adequate homage to the past without letting it swallow us up or shame us or make us feel guilty because we’re stuck in Low Earth Orbit. This was the situation yesterday in Washington, as the three Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, joined up for a rare reunion and reminded everyone that, yes, two of them walked on the moon (the moon!) and it’s about time we got off our duffs and did something with our lives.
The astronauts got a medal. They gave the president a moon rock in the Oval Office and, for reasons unclear, slipped into chatting about space toys of the 1940s and ‘50s. They talked to the director of “Titanic,” James Cameron, who’s making a movie about a manned mission to Mars. (”I went into full-supplicant, I’m-not-worthy mode,” Cameron said later.) They pondered the future of NASA, and ruminated about intelligent life in outer space. They went on live national TV at the Newseum and told kids to do their homework.
Aldrin said that when he looks at the moon, he thinks: “It’s no longer a stranger. It’s a friend.”
The three men are in their late sixties, and all look hale and healthy and without any signs of moonsickness or madness or some other delayed reaction that might be triggered by a visit to another world. The odd thing about the average moon man is how much he looks like the typical semi-retired guy on the riding mower next door. Collins even had the nonchalance to get up unexpectedly during the Newseum broadcast and dash to the airport for a return to a family vacation.
The commemoration was destined to be bittersweet. Any discussion of the Apollo achievement carries with it the disappointments of the years since. No one has walked on the moon since 1972. One of those moonwalkers, Pete Conrad, was laid to rest just Monday at Arlington National Cemetery, the victim of a motorcycle accident.
Then, early yesterday morning, NASA had to abort, at the last conceivable fraction of a second, the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. It is worth noting that NASA wanted to commemorate the Apollo 11 landing not with a new technological achievement but a sociological one, having the first American space flight commanded by a woman.
The astronauts began their day at the National Air and Space Museum, where Vice President Gore gave them the Samuel P. Langley Medal, the Smithsonian’s highest honor. Gore said he was committed to “an aggressive, forward-looking space program” that “dares to push the limits of the heavens.”
He noted that the computer on the Apollo 11 spacecraft had less than one-thousandth the memory capacity of a modern electronic notebook.
Armstrong then gave a rare speech, and was his usual self, the humblest man in the universe. He gave a history lesson about Wilbur Wright seeking help from Langley and the Smithsonian Institution in 1899. He said that in 1909 Orville Wright made 83 circuits over Fort Myer, staying in the air for an hour and 20 minutes, a new endurance record. Armstrong did not mention 1969 and his own trip to the moon.
The astronauts went on to the White House for a brief visit with President Clinton. When Armstrong gave Clinton a moon rock, the gift came with a string attached: The rock belongs to the Smithsonian, Armstrong said, and Clinton may have to give it back at some point.
At midday, the astronauts went to the Newseum in Rosslyn, lunched with journalistic notables, and then appeared in a Freedom Forum event on MSNBC, taking questions from Tim Russert and an audience of students. They all admitted to being worried or apprehensive during the trip to the moon and back, and Armstrong said he specifically didn’t want human error to trigger a mission failure.
But, he said, “We were success-oriented. We believed that we were going to succeed. We did not prepare for not succeeding.”
Collins spoke of his sense, while orbiting the moon in the command module, that there is order in the universe. He remembers looking for the Earth when he woke up in the capsule.
“The first thing you have to do is find the planet. That’s sort of a strange thing, to have to search for the place where you’ve lived your whole life,” Collins said.
He also broached the topic of intelligent aliens. They’re out there, Collins said. All you have to do is work out the numbers on a chalkboard, it’s a statistical probability. Armstrong said he had to agree. Only Aldrin hedged, saying that humans might be the most advanced creatures around: “We could be at the top of the heap.”
The thing that everyone has asked them for 30 years is how the trip to the moon changed their lives, and this day was no exception. It’s a question they struggle with. Aldrin, always the most garrulous, came closest to answering, mentioning his evolving spirituality. On the moon, he served himself communion, which seemed appropriate at the time. Since then, he said, he’s adopted a more “Einsteinian” view of the universe, what he called a “cosmic religious” sensibility.
Armstrong said that, because of the moon trip, “I get to go to a lot more press conferences” at which people ask how the moon changed his life.
He then said he didn’t know how it had changed his life because, having been to the moon, he had no way of knowing what his life would have been like had he not gone to the moon. This was vintage Armstrong: Logic rules.
And yet he also had the most purely inspiring comment of the day. When he was a kid, the same age as the students asking questions, no one had ever flown a plane at supersonic speed. There was no space program. Going to the moon was pure science fiction. In his lifetime--in the first half of his lifetime--everything changed.
“Opportunities will be available to you that you cannot imagine,” he said.
The truth about these astronauts is that nothing they could possibly say would compare to the simple fact of what they did. There will always be a gap between their actions and their words, and their actions are inspiration enough.
They went to the moon.
Where do you want to go today?