Life As We Know It: July 15, 2013

       Next Saturday will mark the 44th anniversary of the first lunar landing, but it will be the first anniversary of that stunning achievement for which Neil Armstrong is no longer with us.

        Like most Americans of a certain age, I was saddened by Mr. Armstrong’s death last August. For my generation, there was no greater hero. But I wondered about younger Americans for whom the first man on the moon might as well have been science fiction. Would they look up from their I-pads or stop texting long enough to ponder this native Ohioan’s amazing achievement?

        I’m afraid the answer for most of them is no.

        By the time he died, Mr. Armstrong had already been consigned to the history books, in much the same manner that Charles Lindbergh seemed more abstract than real for MY generation. Part of that was Mr. Armstrong’s own doing. He was proud of his role in the flight of Apollo 11 but he refused to consider it his own or exploit it for personal gain over the years.

        However, there is no denying the magnitude of what he and his crewmates – Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins – accomplished over a week’s time in July of 1969. The lunar landing and the safe return of the three astronauts to Earth beat President Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade deadline with six months to spare.

        Apollo 11 won the space race for the United States over the then-Soviet Union, and it captivated the planet. For eight days, the citizens of Earth essentially all became Americans, watching the grainy black and white television images beamed from the moon and sharing in the drama. Our country’s accomplishment was theirs as well.

        July 20, 1969 was a day as remarkable in a good way as the horrors of Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001 were momentous in an awful way, and yet many Americans would have trouble today reciting the date of the first moonwalk.

        Other American astronauts had flown to the moon, but none had landed on the lunar surface until Apollo 11, so nobody – not NASA and not the astronauts – could be absolutely sure what to expect when they glided through the moon’s thin atmosphere to the lunar surface.

        And that, more than anything, explains why Neil Armstrong – quiet, humble, and as skilled as any pilot in the astronaut corps – was chosen to command Apollo 11. NASA didn’t want flash; it wanted a steady, calm, unflappable flier at the controls of the Eagle lunar landing module, a decision that paid big dividends.

        Noticing that the landing site was strewn with boulders, he flew beyond it to a safer landing spot, burning all but a few precious seconds of remaining fuel. Finally came the historic words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The world exhaled.

        Many believe that Mr. Armstrong uncharacteristically exercised his prerogative as commander to be the first man out of the capsule onto the moon’s surface, thereby making Col. Aldrin, who followed him out, a footnote in history.

        No, Mr. Armstrong explained later, he became the first man on the moon because he was closest to the hatch, not because of any selfish sense of entitlement. I don’t doubt he meant it. Practicality trumps hubris; that was Neil Armstrong.

        Consider that what Neil Armstrong and the Apollo program achieved has not been equaled in the nearly half century since. Yet your smart phone is more sophisticated than the computers available to the Apollo explorers.

        If you remember July 20, 1969 with an appreciation for its significance, please explain it to someone who wasn’t around yet. It’s that big a deal.

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