What Dreams Are Made Of...
A national treasure passed away last week, though if he heard you calling him that he'd probably punch you right in your face. Neil Armstrong left our world one last time - a man that certainly appreciated his achievements, but certainly didn't like the pop-culture approach it sometimes fell in to. He was intelligent, smart. Damn smart, actually, as he was always full of fantastic quotes - many of them often with the cynical flare that reflected Armstrong's personality. He was critical of religion. Critical of science. Critical of philosophy. But he made damn good points along the way, putting in to perspective man's inabilities just as much as his abilities.
"Well, I think we tried very hard not to be overconfident, because when you get overconfident, that's when something snaps up and bites you." - Armstrong
I just love the very grounded realism in that quote. Sure, we were doing something crazy, he figured, but it could easily fail as much as it could succeed. That's something Armstrong seemingly was great at noting. Sure, he walked on the moon, saw Earth the "size of a pea" yet never gloated about it and probably figured if he wasn't going to do it, someone else probably would have. That one achievement was just one achievement. It didn't define him as a man.
I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work." - Armstrong
The great thing about astronauts is just how human they are. The early years of the space programs pretty much was a recruitment centers for the cowboys of flight: the men that "shoot from the hip" and probably have a death-wish as they test pilot scary-looking machines just because they could and were really good at it. They weren't scientists or philosophers, just explorers and researchers and just men (and later women) that wanted to achieve something for the sake of achieving it and probably throw a barbecue with the neighbors on the weekends. They had a working knowledge of how it all worked, how to piece it all together, but never acted like a scientist in a lab or someone toiling over paperwork. Armstrong notoriously noted how much he just hated all the paperwork and reports - yet loved the idea it was working for something greater and probably worth it in the end). As an engineer, where he basked in the hands-on and practicality of just getting things to work. To him, and to a lot of those early test pilots and researchers, it was just a day at the office.
I feel it was all just matter-of-fact, maybe going like this:
US Air Force: "We want to go to the moon!"
Early 1960s Astronaut: "Alright, let me know when. I'll be there."
Armstrong was there, from the earliest days when the US Air Force first started seriously considering space travel and flight. Like a lot of those early astronauts, he just fell in to the whole thing from being a damn good test pilot. To him, it was probably just another job. Something interesting to do. Who would have thought it would have created something new in the process?
Armstrong right after walking on the moon. I'll repeat that: this is the smile from a man that just walked on the moon probably ten minutes before.
From my perspective, someone born and raised decades later, the impression that Neil Armstrong had would be assumed to be quite small. I wasn't alive in 1969, I didn't watch the moon landing as it happened, I wasn't captivated by the "space race." Hell, I was barely captivated by the Cold War as I lived at the tail end of it. To me growing up in the 1980s, the Cold War consisted of Red Dawn, Rocky IV and Reagan saying something about tearing down a wall.
Yet, if anything, this shows the timelessness of Armstrong's achievements, the success of the Apollo 11 landing and the subsequent trips to space and the crews that lifted themselves up from our planet to the great beyond. I didn't grow up in the era where there was a dream and aspiration to be obtained. I grew up in a time when it was already obtained. Going to outer space was just another day at the office. A part of our lives and of our world. It never occurred to me as I learned about US History in sixth grade that there was a time and a social thought that nobody ever would actually go into space or land on the moon. It was in the books, it happened. In my world, the possibility of it never happening or unable to happen wasn't a consideration. That final frontier was achieved...now we had to figure out how to go even further through it.
"I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of his deep inner soul... we're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream." - Armstrong
But, there was still that magic. And that's the part never stopped. Sure, it all was before my time, but the sensation of dreaming for the stars and "boldly going" never ceased and, truth is, the fact that we briefly touched it just made it that much more wondrous and just as inspiring in my generation as it was in generations that witnessed it live first hand. Kids in the 80s said they wanted to be an astronaut just as much as kids in the 1960s...because astronauts were and still are amazing individuals - selfless in their desire to explore and discover for the sake of humanity, not just an organization or country or, especially in Armstrong's case, themselves.
That dream never ended, even if it was achieved...there were more dreams to be had and seeing that this one was achieved and part of a history book just made us want to dream even more. As a kid, I loved space. I loved learning about space. I loved constellations, I loved telescopes, I loved the occassional meteor shower and I loved reading and learning about what makes space and our universe work. I had two books I remember as a kid:
Neither were techinically science books, going into theories and so forth, they were book about dreams and possibiliites and the elements that make up our universe and us as a civilization looking to, and still struggling to, find and understand our place in existence. I still own both these books, though I had a hell of a time finding them. On a side note, apparently the edition of Footprints on the Moon that I have is worth quite a lot of money...but you can't put money on dreams. To me, it's still just a book I loved as a kid and represenation of dreams that don't die.
Those dreams are still alive and well today, even if the funding isn't quite what it used to be to actually make it happen. The mere thought of strapping yourself into a shuttle or a rocket and exploding through the air at 11km per second to achieve escape velocity, time everything perfectly to reach an orbit and then slingshot your way to a moon or some other destination as you try to figure out the physics and gravitational mathematics to make it all work. Just looking at the complexities of the recent Mars achievement makes the fact that, decades ago, we sent people to the moon and returned them safely that much more impressive.
"It wasn't something we talked a lot about, because in those days space flight was not generally regarded as a realistic objective, and it was a bit pie in the sky." - Armstrong
Why we no longer explore space is beyond me. I don't care about people traveling to space in privately-owned spacecraft, I care about the scientific exploration of things we can't yet touch with our own hands.
The moon in 1969 we did touch with our own hands.
I don't think anyone ever "stopped" loving space or exploration. Not when there were so many kids like me that still think to the stars and wonder. Armstrong and others like him, Glenn, Aldrin, Shephard, Gargarin, Lovell and so many others, made kids saying "I want to be an astronaut when I grow up" actually be a dream to achieve. It wasn't fantasy. It wasn't science fiction. Men and women like Armstrong made it real, and for every new generation to aspire to push that reality even further. The dreams never die, and thanks to men and women like Armstrong proving it, they never will.