Neil Armstrong died today and it has almost no emotional meaning for me. He was the first man on the moon and, somehow, he always seemed like he was a cog in a bigger program. He was a Navy pilot, became a test pilot – including flying the F101 Voodoo which I feel in love with when we were both at Hamilton AFB – he flew combat missions in the Korean war, got shot down1, and he always seemed like he wasn’t real to me.
Even his “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” quote seemed so perfect as to be plastic (a favorite term of disparagement in the 60s). Part of it was the over-choreographing, by NASA, of all the Astronauts (this was the height of the Cold War and it was – in a major way – the Christian west against the godless Commies, it was important that we look good and that only included, for some reason, white men). Part of it was the complete inaccessibly of something so outside our normal, daily, life and part of it must have been watching the whole thing through a low-resolution, black and white, TV camera.
So, while I can remember every detail of my watching the moon-landing and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and my emotional experience, I never felt emotionally connected to the guys on the otherside of the fuzzy, black and white image. The Apollo astronauts never had their Right Stuff movie to make them real. So, it was only when I learned that Armstrong had manually landed Eagle and that it was getting low on fuel – with the Low Fuel light flashing as I remember reading much later – that the enormity of what he had done really hit home with me.
I imagine, driving home from San Francisco – late at night – when the low fuel light comes on and the effect it has on my stress level. Then I imagine that light coming on with no gas stations for the next 240,000 miles: with only enough fuel, not to mention battery power, cooling water, and breathing oxygen to return to lunar orbit, and now the fuel gauge is showing “low fuel”. I imagine not ever having flown a real lunar lander before and having the presence of mind to switch to manual control to find a place to set down.
In a way, taking huge risks right on the edge of oblivion – like the lunar landing – is what the entire Man-on-the-Moon program was about and Neil Armstrong was the Poster Child. What a guy!
1 technically he got shot up, lost the outer six feet of his wing while evading more fire, and managed to fly back to safety.