The first ape to leave his planet of origin and go for a walk on another is remembered today as a “great man”. Perhaps, and the honor is certainly well deserved, but if Maj. General Armstrong was great, it was more for his conduct on the ground than for his exploits in space.
Humanity’s considerable success does not arise only from our intelligence or the dexterity of our opposable thumb. We have diversified, colonized, and advanced because of our unique balance of aggression and cooperation. Arguably, nowhere in our entire history is this better illustrated than in the Space Race of which Armstrong became such a key part.
We went to the moon for science and exploration and adventure, but we signed the checks to stick it to the Ruskies. We went because the two most powerful nations the world had ever known were locked in a stalemate of nuclear hair triggers that—once or twice that we know of—had brought us within hours of potential extinction. And yet, at this pinnacle of barbarism, we did what our ape family has been doing for over a million years: we hatched a bold plan, put together a team, and pulled off the win. At the height of the cold-war, we unleashed the combined creativity and dedication of 150,000 American engineers, scientists, managers and laborers to build a system of machines, the complexity of which makes the Great Pyramid just a pile of rocks by comparison.
Then we put together the procedures, policies, communications networks, and contingencies needed to test, perfect, and utilize this monster to do something that throughout history and until the last decade, had seemed to be impossible. We even broke the rules and put together a back-door alliance when it turned out that radio signals used by Soviet espionage vessels off the Florida coast had the potential to compromise the moon shots (in response to a long relay of unofficial personal pleas, the Soviet radios were silenced).
Armstong too, illustrated this human balance. He is remembered (rightly so) for his humility, but he didn’t get to the moon by being a wallflower. He was smart and sociable, but he was neither particularly well connected nor an academic superstar. He was, however, reliable. He made good grades and he did his job. When opportunities arose, he jumped on them with both feet. He fought in Korea, then he volunteered to be a military test pilot. Then he went to Edwards AFB, where he took the very unglamorous job of flying chase planes and the bombers that dropped the test aircraft. He went on to fly 600 different types of aircraft, most of them experimental. At Edwards, he regularly risked his life and just as regularly came back alive. Famously, when he ejected from a failed Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, he hitched a ride back to the office and started on the paperwork while some of the other Astronauts looked on in awe.
He made mistakes. He got a test plane stuck in the mud. He bumped into the ground with another and–through a serious of “bad day” challenges familiar to us all–ended up stranding three test pilots at another base. But when things went wrong, he handled them. He volunteered for Apollo, but was late getting his paperwork in. They took his packet anyway—they knew his reputation.
Neil Armstrong didn’t just go to the moon, he took us to the moon–all of us–and he saw his role in history with a clarity and humility that allowed him to step back and let us enjoy the ride. His passing, after 82 years, is a loss and sadness for his family, but his life will remain with us as a heroic example from a heroic time in our human journey. Neil Armstrong was indeed a great man, not because he was better than so many others, but because he was the sort of human being that any of us can be with a little bit of moxie, a little bit of smarts, and a whole lot of effort. He was a true hero, because more than anything else in this life, we all need to be reminded that we are all of us capable of greatness.Time and micrometeorites will erode the prints men left on the moon, but the down-to-Earth life of the first man who made them will forever be recorded, as truly a giant leap for mankind.