For numerous reasons, Neil Armstrong was uniquely qualified to be America’s standard—bearer on the epic mission of Apollo Eleven. Though officially listed as NASA’s first civilian astronaut, that description was almost a total mischaracterization of his distinguished military background.
The middle decades of the last century were time when America desperately needed heroes. As the institutions and beliefs that formed the heritage of the nation were being systematically dismantled by countercultural revolutionaries, those who held such things in high regard fervently sought for inspiring reminders of America’s enduring greatness.
But all the pop culture of the late 1960s had to offer in response were its own icons of social collapse, as epitomized by Bob Dylan and Abbie Hoffman. The flag was routinely being publicly desecrated, and contempt shown towards every building block of the American ideal. Nihilism and anti-Americanism appeared to be winning the day.
But in the midst of all the social upheaval, a man came forward and stepped right into the eye of that storm. Wapakoneta Ohio’s most famous son, Neil Armstrong, accepted the challenge to pick up and carry the nation’s tattered flag. And carry it he did, as it had never been carried before, across a quarter million miles of space to a place called Mare Tranquillitatis, “The Sea of Tranquility,” on the surface of the moon.
For numerous reasons, Neil Armstrong was uniquely qualified to be America’s standard—bearer on the epic mission of Apollo Eleven. Though officially listed as NASA’s first civilian astronaut, that description was almost a total mischaracterization of his distinguished military background. He was a veteran of 78 combat missions over Korea, one of which involved bailing from a crippled aircraft. It was also no disadvantage to him that, as a figure who was bound to grace the cover of every national news magazine, as well as making innumerable public speaking appearances, he possessed the sort of youthful good looks that Hollywood would be hard pressed to surpass, were it tasked to cast the quintessential astronaut in a movie.
Though “coolness under pressure” has long been a defining and necessary quality among all astronauts employed by NASA, Armstrong possessed it to an almost superhuman degree, as exhibited in an incident that occurred only a few weeks prior to the moon mission.
During a practice session in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (an awkward monstrosity that incorporated a combination of jet and rocket propulsion to simulate final approaches to the lunar surface), the craft suddenly veered out of control and started tumbling. Hurtling towards the ground from an altitude of only 500 feet, Armstrong had to stay aboard, riding the vehicle down until it rotated to the proper attitude for him to safely eject. Had he panicked and ejected only a second earlier (an understandable reaction, in consideration of his close proximity to the ground), it would have cost him his life. On final descent to the lunar surface, he realized that his craft’s computer was taking him into a treacherous boulder field within a crater, forcing him to veer rapidly forward, almost expending his limited supply of fuel. Again, with steely nerves, he averted disaster and landed safely. And, changing the course of history, he then informed a waiting world with his nearly laconic declaration “The Eagle has landed.”
Yet for his own part, Armstrong regarded himself as merely one among the multitudes needed to make the moon program a success. Starting with his two fellow crewmembers, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins, Armstrong was quick to point out the efforts of others, without whom his feat would never have been possible.
His most famous quote exemplifies this mindset, referring to the personal aspect of his action as merely “one small step,” while characterizing its significance to the human race as a “giant leap.” When responding to President Nixon’s commendations, given as Armstrong and Aldrin stood on the moon’s surface, he sidestepped the insinuation that their deeds constituted some great personal achievement, describing themselves instead as mere participants, representing all those from “peaceful nations,” possessing “interest and curiosity” and holding a “vision for the future.”
Unlike so many among the ensuing “boomer” generation, and in stark contrast to the modern day narcissists who predominate the pop culture and more alarmingly, the highest levels of government, Armstrong was never prone to self-absorption, regarding his role as nothing other than a man doing the job he had trained to do. With the mission ended, the parades passed by, and the spotlights faded, he seemed altogether happy to return to relative obscurity, only infrequently making the news on the occasion of moon landing anniversary commemorations, and a recent statement he delivered to the press, expressing his disapproval of the diminished role of NASA that resulted from Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Orion space program, which would have returned Americans to the moon..
But Neil Armstrong did so much more than merely perform his official duties with great skill and expertise. He gave Americans reason to cheer the hope and potential of their country during a period when so many others were seeking to disparage and degrade both its past and its future. At the height of the Cold War, as America struggled against the tides of Soviet Communism, he risked everything to stand as a symbol of this nation’s resolve to remain at the technological forefront, knowing that it was there that the great conflict was destined to be lost or won.
Two decades later, the final collapse of the Soviet Union, shortly followed by the dissolution of the European Eastern Bloc, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the global retreat of communism, signified reverberations of the extraordinary event of July 20, 1969. For it was on that day that a black and white TV image of two Americans standing next to their nation’s flag on the lunar surface shouted a message to all of humanity that the United States would not be forced into submission to any other power on earth.
Neil Armstrong passed away on Saturday, August 25. It is inarguable that the America of 2012 finds itself in even greater need of the qualities he embodied than ever before. Amid the turmoil of a disintegrating culture (the “successes” of those ‘60s radicals have indeed taken their toll), an economic downturn now greater in scope and duration than any before it, and a systematic and institutionalized demolition of the nation’s foundations, true role models of heroism and valor are increasingly rare. And certainly, the contrived and celebrated status of the Pitts, Clooneys, Lohans and Kardashians as well as the host of nearly feral sports figures, are an embarrassing and pathetic substitute for the genuine article.
Though the virtues embodied by such individuals as Neil Armstrong are nowadays often trivialized and impugned by an increasingly shallow and petty society, it is those very things that will revive and restore America, if it is to have any hope for its future.