Unless you haven’t got a TV, radio or computer you will have heard the very sad news by now that Neil Armstrong died last night. Tributes have been pouring in for hours, and it’s a very, very sad day for everyone interested in not just space exploration but human history too.
The term “end of an era” is used far, far too often, but in a way this is just that. The first human being to walk on the surface of another world is no longer walking the Earth, and that means something, something profound. I can’t quite put my finger on just what it means, but it definitely feels like something has changed.
Perhaps it is further proof, if any were needed, that Apollo is now an historical event, it happened waaay back there, over our shoulders, far behind us. When I give my Outreach talks in schools, the kids I meet and talk to think of Apollo in teh same way they think of World War 2, or the Great Fire of London. Yes, it happened, but so long ago, so long before they were even born, that it just doesn’t seem relevent to them. It’s something they read about in history books, watch on history programs, are told about by Old People. When they see people walking on the Moon, the pictures are usually jerky, and in black and white. They look old, so old, just one step removed from silent movies. And when I show them pictures of the mighty Saturn V rockets blasting off, shaking the Earth itself with the fury of their engines, crawling up into a blue sky bound for the faraway Moon, they’re interested, yes, but it’s Just History, like watching the Titanic edging away from the quayside, or the crumpling remains of the Hindenburg being devoured by flame. I try to put across the excitement of Apollo, the significance of it, the magnificence of the achievement, but many of them – not all, but many – simply can’t connect with it. It happened too long ago. They live in a different world.
So this sad event will be felt by people my age, and older, not by the younger generation. If it had been a Kardashian, or a Premier League footballer, or a foul-mouthed rapper, well, then there would have been much teenage wailing and sobbing today, a tsunami of heartbroken Tweets and posts on Facebook, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, people my age, and older, are feeling bad inside today, deflated, grey. We can feel a darkness upon us today, sensing something tragic has happened, bringing something wonderful to an end.
But it’s not just sadness we’re feeling today, is it? It’s other things too. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling intense frustration. Frustration that Armstrong died without living to see more astronauts, men and women, following in his footsteps. Yes, our unmanned exploration of the solar system is a towering achievement, a source of great pride in its own right, but how can it be that almost half a century after Armstrong took that famous “Small step” there are no fresher, crisper bootprints around the descent stage of Eagle, around Armstrong’s own? That’s unbelievable. And wrong, it’s just wrong. I feel it, you feel it. We got lost after Apollo, and that’s almost shameful.
Some think Armstrong himself was partly to blame for that, and I’ll be honest I’ve wondered about that too. No-one can ever doubt or question’s Neil Armstrong’s heroism and achievement, he was a hero in the true, genuine sense of the word, risking his life for something bigger. What he did will echo through time for millennia. But, yes, I have wondered how different things might have been if, after returning to Earth, Armstrong hadn’t retreated from the worship of the world and supported space exploration more publicly and enthusiastically. If he had spoken more openly about his experiences during the mission, if he had shared with the world his feelings while walking on the Moon, if he had urged NASA to continue the journey of Apollo 11, to reach out further into space, what would have happened?
We’ll never know, and maybe it’s pointless to even think about it. And of course it was absolutely, absolutely Armstrong’s right to do what he wanted after he returned. He’d done everything asked of him, and more. He earned his peace and quiet. And yet… and yet… as much as I admire him, and honour what he did, and mourn for him today, a part of me can’t help thinking that if Armstrong had been even just a little more passionate about Apollo 11, had shared a little more of the adventure with us, had done a little more to personally inspire people to follow him back to the Moon and then go further, we would have been watching people, not rovers, exploring Mars by now.
But that’s for history and historians to debate, and I’m sure they will too.
Today, we now live in a world where the first human being to stand on the surface of another world has gone. And listening to the heartfelt tributes being paid to the astronaut this morning, on TV and on the radio, and reading comments online, I honestly thaink that the significance of Armstrong’s achievement, his place in history, and its effect on our future, isn’t being recognised.
Because what Armstrong did, what he was, was unique. Unique. That’s another word used far, far too often today, to describe everything from the “talent” of a footballer, to the voice of a singer or even the taste of a new chocolate bar or cereal. No. What Armstrong did was unique in the shining, purest, most perfect sense of the world, because what he did could never, ever be repeated. He was the first person to stand on the surface of another world. The First. There can’t be two Firsts to do that.
In years to come, people will – when politicians get their fingers out of their backsides and their noses out of the troughs, and when we wake up to the fact that science, not celebrity, will move us forward – leave Earth and travel to other worlds. Not anytime soon, but eventually. In years to come there will be a “First Person on Mars”, someone (probably already alive today, running around a school playground somewhere, think about that…) will make their way down a ladder and step out onto the ruddy surface of Mars, say their own historic words, and go down in history – but they will only be repeating what Armstrong did, a century or more earlier.
Eventually there’ll be other Firsts “out there”. Someone will be The First to leave footprints on the icy surface of Europa and Ganymede; to walk on the frozen sulphur-coated crust of Io; to crump crump across the snowy south pole of Enceladus, stopping to watch those water ice geysers exploding into the black sky; to hike up the black-and-white mountains that runaround the equator of Iapetus; to trudge across the tholin sludge- and slush-covered plains of Titan, under a burnt orange sky, and stand on the shores of its dark, slopping methane lakes…
Eventually, in a distant, over the horizon century to come, a man or woman will be The First to set foot on the surface of a world orbiting another STAR, the first to look up into the sky and feel the warmth of an alien sun on their face, and, after darkness has fallen, the first see our own Sun shining as a faint sequin star in a night sky ablaze with constellations yet to be charted or named.
But no matter how far we fly, no matter how many moons or worlds or suns we reach, there will only ever be one First To Stand On Another World, and that was Neil Armstrong. And for as long as the human race exists, his name will be spoken with reverence and respect. Statues of him will be erected on Mars, on Titan, on worlds yet to be discovered whirling around faraway alien suns. If we survive long enough to reach the next spiral arm, or the centre of the Milky Way, or even leave our Galaxy altogether and plunge like deep sea divers into the blackness beyond, where there are no stars in the heavens, just the chalk dust smudges of other galaxies far beyond our own, Neil Armstrong will always be The First, THAT’s how important what he did was, that’s how important HE was.
The next time you see the Moon, think about that, and say your own Thank You to Neil Armstrong.
It’s one of the great ironies that there is no good, clear picture of Neil Armstrong standing on the Moon. We have shots of his back, his leg, and at least one good one of him inside the LEM, but none of his face through the visor as he stands on the Moon. There are no portraits. One should have been taken, I will never, ever be convinced otherwise about that; time should have been set aside during that EVA for Buzz Aldrin to take a proper portrait of Neil Armstrong standing on the Moon, for the sake of history. It would have taken a moment, just a moment, and would have given us an image to treasure for the rest of human history. But, for whatever reason, none was taken.
So I made my own.
Godspeed, Neil Armstrong. And thank you.
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