RIP Neil Armstrong

I was nine years old when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon and uttered the immortal words that he didn’t quite get right.

At the time the landing seemed most memorable because we got the day off school to watch it. In retrospect, of course, it was almost the end of term anyway so the teachers were probably glad to pack us all off into a room to watch TV.

Re-watching it now the main thing that strikes me is how blurry and black and white it looks but it was a completely different story then. It’s important to remember that hardly anyone had a colour TV and live TV of any kind was pretty primitive, so it did not seem that way at the time. The whole thing with the beeps on the soundtrack etched its way so far into the national consciousness that we would be doing them on the school playground for months afterwards.

At the time this was something truly astonishing. Neil Armstrong was the man on the moon. He was instantly the most famous man in the world, even more famous than Yuri Gagarin, and that film seemed to symbolise an age when mankind could take a giant leap to do anything we wanted. It seemed like an age of optimism and progress, innocence and possibility, when for the first time we could look at the Earth from somewhere else. The first steps were even taken in the Sea of Tranquillity.

It was never going to last of course, as TV news pictures from Vietnam were already telling us and the actions of the president who congratulated the Apollo 11 crew would confirm. And each subsequent Apollo mission, despite TV pictures that were far superior in quality, revealed that the Moon was, well, a bit boring really.

But the truth was that nothing had been quite what it seemed even at the time. Far from being a selfless mission to send man to the stars, the space programme on both sides was essentially a military one that became a battle of national prestige after Gagarin and Sputnik. The American and Russian programmes were both born out of the Nazi V2 rocket programme, with many of the same scientists responsible. The real aim was to be able to fire nuclear missiles further than the other lot. And, as the book and film The Right Stuff (both equally brilliant) reveal, the engineers for the Mercury capsule thought astronauts were so unimportant to the mission that they had to stage a rebellion to persuade them to include windows and a hatch in case the windows failed. [Corrected from previous version – see comments].

And yet despite all that, despite knowing what came before and after the Apollo 11 landing, Neil Armstrong remains a hero. The first man on the moon may have died but his reputation lives on. Contrast that with his namesake Lance, whose reputation died this week even though he lives on.

It’s partly knowing about the way that he took manual control during the landing to avoid large rocks and landed with only 20 seconds of fuel left, the margin between triumph and disaster. Armstrong had demonstrated similar skill in the Gemini 8 mission three years earlier and comprehensively disproved the NASA scientists’ belief that astronauts were passengers rather than pilots.

Mostly though it’s about what happened after Apollo 11 safely made it back. The first man on the moon did not want to be the most famous man in the world. I’ll be looking out for the inevitable repeat of the documentary Being Neil Armstrong for a reminder of the way that he shunned any form of celebrity and wanted nothing more than to teach engineering.

Which is why, despite everything we know now, a little part of me is still a nine-year-old boy watching blurry black and white TV pictures of his one small step.

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5 Comments on “RIP Neil Armstrong”

  1. I was 11 Jules, and can remember running home from school (in ‘big school’ we were not given the day off to watch it unfurl). The excitement was almost unbearable and the atmosphere tense and expectant as he stepped off the step and bounced his first few contacts with the fragile surface. I cannot look at the moon even now all these years later without thinking back to that day – a man got there stood on it kicked the dust about a bit and got back here – the landing in the sea was a similarly memorable event – I remember thinking ‘how on earth are they going to find that tiny capsule in that great big ocean’!?

    Many of the young boys I knew at the time said that they too wanted to be astronauts – you hardly ever hear kids say that these days – unmanned missions to Mars do not have the same wow factor however extraordinary they are – the magic and mystic of space travel has been erased for the most part by exceptionally good CGG films which we can consume from the comfort of the sofa – I want to be a software engineer is more likely an aspiration!

    The scariest part of all of this for me is the thought of the power in my pocket being hugely greater than the computers that got them there – and back!

    Time is our enemy in managing to get man to go further and unless and until we crack that one we won’t be leaving this planet – our bodies and souls intact that is – for many millennia

  2. julesbirch says:

    Thanks, Carmel – You must have gone to a pretty strict school! I had forgotten just how exciting it was until Saturday triggered all the memories and took me back there.

  3. Denever says:

    The Right Stuff got a number of things wrong. Von Braun and his team designed and built the Saturn V and had nothing to do with the lunar module. The astronauts had to convince the contractor for the lunar module to include the window, not the rocket team.

    Von Braun had good relationships with all of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts. The version of events you’re passing on here is wrong.

  4. julesbirch says:

    Thanks for the comment, Denever. It is an especially memorable scene (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-qEmmpGYvA) but on searching I can see that others have made the same point as you so have corrected my piece.


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