Sunday, August 26, 2012

Stuff of Legend

The other week it occurred to me that an Olympic medal may be one of the few things that render people close to immortal. Then I remembered that about 384,000 kilometers away there are some tangible human artifacts that effectively are immortal:
 Buzz Aldrin boot and lunar footprint, Apollo 11, image via NASA

The footprints and other artifacts that twelve men from Earth left on the Moon will remain recognisable for millenia at least if left undisturbed. The news today of the death of the first man to leave them reminded me of this.

Coincidentally I was reading my now well-worn copy of A Man On The Moon the other day, and came across a passage that resonated in a way I hadn't felt the umpteen times I've read it before:

"everything he did, even casual speech, seemed to be the result of a great deal of thought . . . Armstrong often kept people at arm's length. He rarely engaged in idle conversation, and steadfastly guarded his privacy.
"In time, the NACA pilots realised that Armstrong wasn't aloof; he was shy. Once they got past his great reserve, they found warmth. Once he became a friend, he was a good friend . . . If he could be reticent, then he could also become so involved in conversation while driving that his passengers nervously eyed the road. "

It's obviously describing Neil Armstrong, but I suddenly recognised a few of those personality traits in myself, especially shyness being mistaken for aloofness. That's about as close as I'll ever get to what he achieved (and the end of any self aggrandising comparisons), but it is nice to know there were aspects to him I could relate to. His modesty would mean he would even downplay his own significance at being the first moonwalker, claiming that the landing itself was the real achievement, and that was something that he and Buzz Aldrin (who made a nice statement today here) had done simultaneously. Even without Apollo 11, his combat flying career with the US Navy, his test flying career with NACA/NASA (including flying what is still the fastest manned aircraft ever), and his previous spaceflight on Gemini 8 (which he personally saved from disaster under difficult circumstances when a system malfunction occurred) would have been worthy of note. It makes me respect him and his withdrawal from publicity even more - he could have been the celebrity of celebrities had he chosen to.

Dr Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has written a nice piece on Armstrong's passing today, and says "we can divide all of history into two parts: before humans landed on the Moon, and after". I was born 7 years after Apollo 11; I have never known a world where we haven't walked on the moon, and I'm grateful to Armstrong and all of his peers for making it that way. I have never grown out of that childlike wonder of seeing images and accounts of people walking on another world apart from our own. There are more famous images of Armstrong, but this is my favourite, taken on the Moon just after the first moonwalk concluded, and it sums up that feeling for me.
Image via NASA
There are now eight living moonwalkers of the original twelve. Hopefully there will be more before that number drops to zero.

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