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Thursday, August 30, 2012
Current Affairs ... Outer Space ...

The press recently marked the passing of the first man to walk on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong. Ah, another famous figure from my youth has gone to the great round-up out in the blue. And another reminder is had that life is not to be taken for granted.

The RealClearScience web site published a tribute to Mr. Armstrong just after his passing, making the point that he probably saved the Apollo 11 mission from being aborted or even failing tragically during the last minute when the lunar module approached the moon’s surface. As the story goes, the “LEM” (lunar excursion module) with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was off course a bit and was heading towards a rather rocky and dangerous landing spot. Armstrong decided to over-ride the computer controls and pilot the craft himself, which required him to fly horizontally over the moon’s surface, looking for a nice flat spot to land. This maneuver used up a lot of fuel, such that the LEM was less than a minute from running on fumes (which it basically doesn’t do). But Armstrong stayed cool and finally found his spot, and the rest was history.

Not long after reaching the moon, Armstrong took the first walk on lunar soil. It obviously was a moment for the history books, and Armstrong had a good line prepared for the moment. As his boots hit the lunar dust, Mr. Armstrong spoke into his helmet microphone “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. It was a big moment (recall the scenes of CBS News anchorman Walter Chronkite being flabbergasted and losing his words), and this line sounded really good. Only later on did anyone think about what Armstrong had actually said. Man . . . mankind . . . what’s the difference? One small step for humanity, one giant leap for humanity? What’s this, a Zen koan or something?

No, Armstrong was trying to contrast how his stepping off the LEM platform was physically just a human being (himself) taking a small footstep; but in the context of the circumstances, it was a watershed moment for the human race. Obviously, Armstrong flubbed his lines; in the intensity of the moment, he forgot the “a” in “step for [a] man”. He said later that he hoped history would “grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it was not said”.

Well, considering the harrowing circumstances that Neil Armstrong had to go through on the way down, and how he got through it even a curse word, I would certainly cut him some slack. In the end, Armstrong’s bad grammar wasn’t the problem. The real issue in my mind is that the Apollo lunar mission in the end was NOT a “giant leap for mankind”. They were more of an expensive advertisement and demonstration of American techno-prowess in the face of a long-term ideological threat from the Soviet bloc. (Albeit, a much better flexing of national muscle than some more ICBMs, supersonic bombers and aircraft carriers.)

Once the Communist threat receded, we realized that getting people into space and back was enormously expensive and without any great logic to it. Given our prodigious techno-prowess, we can build machines that can do about anything we need done out in the blue, for a lot less (such as the recent Curiosity science lab landing on Mars went to prove). It will take several technological revolutions in the future before we could envision making human space travel as ordinary as trans-oceanic air flights. The Stanley Kubrick dream behind the movie “2001”, with its frequent commercial flights to space stations and lunar bases, is still many decades away.

But I count myself lucky to have grown up during the excitement of the American “man on the moon” program. It made young people like me take the government seriously. It gave us a sense that despite the great cost (taxes and regulations) and occasional giant blunders (like the Vietnam war), big government was still good for something. It could do great things that no other institution could do.

GOP V.P. candidate Paul Ryan, by contrast, was born just a few months after the second manned landing on the moon. He grew up with the Space Shuttle and its many disappointments and disasters. So it’s not that surprising that he takes a less favorable view on the potential benefits of big government relative to the cost.

Ah, but if only President Obama could find a way to reinvigorate that “Apollo spirit”. His speeches got people fired up for a while, they expected big things. But then he got elected, and mostly a lot of little things happened (aside from the health care bill, which may someday be judged as a “giant leap for mankind”, but for now is causing a lot of angst and uncertainty). I’m willing to give Obama a second chance to come up with something, as Governor Romney doesn’t offer much more than the Ryan-generation’s cynicism about what the public can accomplish when united behind its government.

But I’m not betting my retirement money that Barack Obama will in fact bring back the national excitement that I experienced back in the mid-1960s, even if he is re-elected. I’m not sure that there’s going to be another Neil Armstrong figure on the frontiers of American progress, any time soon.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:04 pm      

  1. Jim, Yes, I certainly agree that Neil Armstrong was certainly a special person in this world. I remember vividly wondering if he actually *would* walk on the moon; of course, he did. I think his accomplishment was considered so special because JFK had said that he wanted to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. JFK didn’t make it through the decade, but his wish was fulfilled. If people weren’t consciously aware of this fact, then it was in the back of their head somewhere, I’m sure.

    Then too, I notice that it’s the *men* who take exception to the fact that Armstrong did not use a more general term “humanity”. Women at that time were so used to being left out of the picture that there was little fuss from them. (At least that’s how I see it. Things would be different now, I’m sure.) And thus it seems to me that if men had been treated through the years as women have been treated (simply being left out of the picture, not acknowledged as even being), there would have been a much greater fuss about a lot of things than women have put up for millennia. Well, I digress. Then too perhaps I mistake the use of the word “humanity”; perhaps the men really did want to include women. (I’m tempted to put an “LOL” right here, but I won’t.)

    That being said, perhaps it’s a matter of “who cares?” in the end. Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon; certainly a massive accomplishment for the U.S. at the time. A real “who’d’ve thunk!” I say Neil Armstrong seemed to be a good man. He never walked around flaunting his accomplishment–well, as far as was noticeable by most of the world. (Movie stars and singers flaunt their accomplishments endlessly often, and they don’t come close to what Armstrong did; and again, I digress.) I say, good for him. And let him rest in peace. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 31, 2012 @ 10:22 am

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