At the age of 82, after heart surgery, the first human being to set foot on another world, Neil Alden Armstrong, has died. He wasn’t specifically picked to be humanity’s first interplanetary ambassador. There are those who say NASA wanted a civilian to be the first man on the Moon, and perhaps there was some careful scheduling such that Armstrong was made commander of Apollo 11. However it happened, it was Neil Armstrong who first put booted foot to lunar regolith.
All those who worked with Armstrong had nothing but respect for Armstrong’s skills, expertise and coolness. There was even a rumour that he remained so cool because he believed a person was allotted a finite number of heartbeats per lifetime and he was making sure they lasted.
After a worldwide publicity tour for Apollo 11, Armstrong became a recluse. He stopped being an astronaut and instead turned university professor. When he felt strongly enough on space-related matters, he stepped up and spoke his mind. There are a number of books about Neil Armstrong, but perhaps the best is James Hansen’s First Man – see here.
Neil Armstrong is the fourth of the twelve Moonwalkers to die. That means eight are left. Will I see more Moonwalkers during my lifetime? I’m beginning to suspect not. I hope I’m wrong. Even so, should some astronaut, cosmonaut or taikonaut set foot on the Moon in the next twenty to thirty years, technological advances will mean their achievement can never really compare with those of the Apollo astronauts. They were at the sharp end of the one of the greatest engineering projects of the twentieth century. They travelled 250,000 miles through space to another world on less advanced technology than we now find in our pockets. The astronauts made the footprints in the regolith, but their achievement is just as much the achievement of all those who supported them – the people who designed, built, tested, maintained, managed and operated all the equipment used by the Apollo programme.
History will remember Armstrong’s name because he was first. But what they all did deserves celebration.