Neil Armstrong mostly stayed out of the public spotlight - no appearance in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon", like fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin"Buzz" Aldrin did. "I am comfortable with my level of public discourse," he once said in declining to be interviewed for Washington Post Magazine. He did join Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, a few months ago at the opening of The National Flight Academy in Florida, which teaches math and science to kids at their aviation camp. Because a guy who is famous for turning a small step into a giant leap for mankind actually loved flying more than walking. Even on the Moon.
I don't remember seeing him walk on the Moon - I know I watched it, along with just about everyone else in America at the time, because my parents watched it. I likely didn't 'get it' at age 4; living in Florida, an hour south of Cocoa Beach and that Space Coast, meant being steeped in astronaut culture all of the time so that was just the way it was. Astronauts and the Dodgers. It was only during the launch of Skylab in 1973, seeing a Saturn V take off in person - it was called Cape Kennedy then, not Canaveral - that I realized it was some pretty cool science stuff. Astronauts were not near me because they liked me, they were there because that location allows rockets to launch eastward, in the same direction as the Earth's rotation, and the linear velocity of the Earth's surface increases the closer you get to the equator. I just happened to live in an area without a dense population at the time the space program came around so that was the spot.
But the idea of walking in space, or on the Moon, was still lost to me. It was too big to imagine. And risky. Heck, even the training was dangerous in the old NASA, before manned space flight turned into a zero-risk job works program rather than a bold endeavor. 14 months before landing on the Moon, Armstrong was almost killed when the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle veered out of control and crashed during testing.
But they eventually got it right during testing and when he had to land the Lunar Module, "Eagle", manually due to the rocky terrain, he did it without a hitch. Yet all he had to say about the matter when it was finished was, "Houston, Tranquility Base here...the Eagle has landed."
Nerves of steel.
When President Nixon called to congratulate him, the talk was what you would expect from an American president, what a proud day it was for all Americans. Armstrong diplomatically replied, "It's a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States but men of peace of all nations, and with interests and the curiosity and with the vision for the future."
To Armstrong, the walk on the Moon that was too big for me to imagine and that made him immortal - I never dreamed of being an astronaut, it was beyond my thinking, even then - had not even been his favorite part, that landing of the Eagle lunar module, the thing that almost got him killed in testing, was. "Pilots take no special joy in walking: pilots like flying", he was quoted in "In the Shadow of the Moon : A Challenging Journey to Tranquility". And he lived it. He flew over 200 different kinds of aircraft; everything from jets to rockets to helicopters and gliders.
Yet when I visited the USS Horne with my son in February, I made sure to get a picture of him next to the painting around Armstrong's footprints from 1969. It seemed a tangible way for it to make sense to a young guy.
If there is a Heaven, not only did it take a giant leap to being a much cooler place, Neil Armstrong now gets to fly as much as he wants.
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