(This is a post I created originally on August 25, 2012 – enjoy!)
…on the radio today, came the sad news that Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk the surface of a place not called Earth, had passed on. This of course is not the first time that something that Neil Armstrong did made me stop what I was doing and ponder.
I was almost seven years old when I was transfixed by an event that was truly history. Think for a moment about the great fortune involved! Television had been improved to the point where much of the Earth could see his first steps on the Moon. It was relatively new, at that time, seeing events that were both momentous and live. I recall having a front row seat near my grandfather’s television, to watch the Neil Armstrong’s actions, and hear Walter Cronkite narrate as if he was a long lost friend of the family. That event was witnessed live by more of the Earth than had ever witnessed anything simultaneously before. It makes reality TV look paultry in comparison. It was one of the greatest moments of the 20th century. (Here is a link to the youtube video of the event – it is 5-6 min in length)
Neil Armstrong was one of the most unlikely people to be in the center of that moment. He lacked what we see from most reality stars today: an unabashed desire for attention and fame. He was a test pilot and a darn good one. He wanted to be great at what he did. At the same time he was unassuming and modest. He wanted to explore and push the envelope. He was cut of the same cloth as Chuck Yeager and those who risked their lives in the Mercury and Gemini programs before Apollo. For background, see the movie “The Right Stuff!”
A key here is that he wanted to explore. To find new things – new data was part of that exploration. I was treated to a lecture many years ago by Dr. Paul Lowman, a NASA scientist charged with making both Armstrong and his partner on the Moon, Buzz Aldren, lunar geologists. He blatently admitted that most assumptions about lunar geology were as far from what Armstrong discovered as if the Moon had been made of green cheese! While many smarter people watched on Earth, Armstrong was the first to encounter the dusty surface, covered in fine-grained particles that defied even the typical behavior of Earth dust.
What came of this was a spark to my interest in science. I wanted to be there, or rather, to go to the next place to explore. I wanted to take new data. I wanted to push the envelope and done what I saw Neil do that day. Unfortunately I was too tall! (I will save this side story for another day) However, an entire nation of scientists and engineers were spawned from seeing this event. Truly, it was a “giant leap” of inspiration.
I have two questions for you. First, if you were alive then, how did this event change your view of the world and your life? Second, alive then or not, when was the last time you expored the unexplored?! When was the last time you too a risk to find out information, see a place, or view a problem, differently than anyone before you? These stories provide inspiration to people like me, and others who are curious about the world(s) around them.
Neil Armstrong was not a “scientist” in the purest sense of the word. In any sense, he was and still is an under appreciated, private hero worth the significant place that he has taken in the history of our species.