As an explorer who left this planet and walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong is right there in our imaginations with Marco Polo, Columbus and Magellan – even more so as a uniquely American hero.
“Yet people on the street wouldn’t be able to pick him out from a set of pictures,” said USC Aiken professor Dr. Neil Miller, who has taught astronomy in recent years and remains an avid amateur astronomer.
Armstrong died Saturday at age 82 – 43 years after he took his magical walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, leaving behind “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and footprints that could last for some measure of eternity.
His legacy might last that long, too, but surely few famous people have been as determinedly low-key as Armstrong. He never flew again, taught for a few years, worked in business and never capitalized on his name.
“He was not that kind of person,” Miller said. “He figured it was just his job, that it could have been Buzz Aldrin who stepped out first.”
Just 2 in 1969, Miller recalls nothing of the televised landing. About seven years later, he started reading about astronomy and got his first telescope for Christmas. A photo of Armstrong, Aldrin and pilot Michael Collins decorated his bedroom.
“I had the name Neil, too,” Miller said. “I would look at that picture and it looked great, and I wanted to go to the moon too.”
Today, the 45-year-old Miller runs the DuPont Planetarium at the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center twice a month and still explores the moon with wonder.
Gary Senn was all of 8 that special day and recalls Armstrong’s words vividly. That experience did help start him on his own career, infusing in him the excitement of science and technology. He directs the Ruth Patrick Center and looks at the moon, too.
Many expectations from the public following Armstrong’s ride stemmed from what Senn calls the humorous side of science fiction. The “Star Trek” franchise brought warp drive and the molecule-dissolving transporters into everyday life. Senn described the 1982 Trek movie, “The Wrath of Khan,” when Capt. Kirk and the gang encounter another ship in deep space, which had taken off from Earth in the 1990s.
Senn agrees with David Boyd that the accomplishments of Armstrong and all those who worked on the Apollo missions can’t be understated. Boyd, systems manager for the Aiken Standard, operates his own observatory. He believes the space program could have done much more in the last four decades.
“We were going to take the next big step, going into the great unknown,” he said. “To have made such an achievement and to just stop must have been a huge disappointment for Armstrong.”
Still, Boyd is delighted with the new Mars Rover and is amazed by the reality of a spacecraft hovering over the Red Planet and lowering the rover down to the surface. But nothing can compare with the human achievements in space. For centuries explorers sailed across oceans, many of them dying at sea.
“This was so new,” Boyd said of the moon landing. “It took such bravery to sit on that volatile fuel and blast off into space. We were all glued to the television, transfixed by this. It brings on the point of what was the disconnect, that we could have gone on to the next great adventure.”
Young people today may not comprehend that the race to the moon in the 1960s was as much political as scientific. Dr. Steve Millies, chairman of USCA’s history, political science and philosophy department, wrote a theses on the Kennedy administration as an undergraduate. What really got the moon mission going, he said, was the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit of the Earth in 1961.
“Kennedy faced a public outcry about that,” said Millies. “It was one of those times when there was a stampede to take action.”
The Cold War was in full force, he said. People were mindful that the U.S. had brought everybody home from Europe following World War II, opening things up for the Soviet Union. People were fearful that the Soviets would fire nuclear missiles from space. Hugh Dryden, a NASA deputy administrator, announced in 1962 that America was going to the moon. Kennedy made it official, and the race was on.
However, he was worried about the cost. Ironically, the money spent on all the Apollo missions amounted to $160 billion in today’s dollars – a pittance by current spending standards, but the actual $23.9 billion allocation was huge at the time.
“The Kennedy experience showed that all the dollar signs don’t really matter if you feel your opponent is getting ahead of you,” Millies said.
He, too, cited Armstrong’s detachment from the fanfare in the aftermath of one of America’s most remarkable achievements.
“Armstrong realized that he was the face of millions of people who worked on the project,” Millies said. “It gave him a sense of humility about it.”
As much as the adventure, the moon mission brought about remarkable achievements – advances in satellite technology, computer advancements with integrated circuits and the first fuel cells.
The technology advances are still there, and the Mars Rover is evidence of that, said Miller. But there’s no Soviet Union, no real competition. China would likely be next, but that could take years.
“It’s hard to put this in perspective,” Miller said. “We’re the ones sending things to Mars. We’re the tech giant. But no one else is pushing us, and it’s not a great sell politically in this economy.”
Yet research and development are still needed, still important.
“Maybe Armstrong’s passing will remind people of what they had to go through to get him on the moon,” Miller said. If we want kids to become engineers and scientists, mentioning his name will be a good thing.”