To the stars … with our souls I really hadn't thought about it for a long time. And to be honest, it hadn't actually sunk in that it was, indeed, "the summer of '69." Until Saturday night when the news broke that Neil Armstrong was dead. He died from complications of heart surgery. Then it all came rushing back. In the summer of 1969, I was 10 years old. That's the exact age my son is in the summer of 2012.
When I was 10, space was everything. I was, and continue to be, fascinated by space. For years, I wrote a column for the Orange County Space Society which at the time was the most active in the country. I'm still fascinated by space. It saddens me that more people aren't excited about space because, in the big picture, it's the only place we're going to have left.
The day will come when our sun dies and if we haven't figured out how to go somewhere else, the gig is up. I can't figure out why people don't see that more clearly. Maybe they do but just don't care about what happens a few million years from now. Maybe I shouldn't either, but I do. Even the few dust particles that will still be me then can have a role that far in the future. That's why I was so hopeful so long ago in the summer of '69. I followed the space program religiously since I first understood exactly what it meant. I read books and watched Walter Cronkite as he chronicled NASA and its drive to reach the Moon. Like almost everyone, when Apollo 11 roared to life from Florida, my hopes were high.
I think even at the age of 10, I somehow saw the big picture. I knew this was at least one of the most important moments in history. Arguments can be made for the invention of the wheel or discovering the New World. Those are valid arguments, but getting a man off the Earth and onto another planetary body, and then returning him safely, has to rank right up there with the best of them.
I vividly remember those moments when the lunar lander was heading to the surface. I think very few of us actually realized just how tense it was inside The Eagle. If you listen closely to the radio communications, you can hear a count in the background.
That count was how many seconds of fuel were left. As it turned out, Armstrong, the commander, had to go past the original landing site because of boulders so he was flying on fumes. He made the call to set down and there was hardly any fuel left in the tank. A few more seconds and they would have had to separate from the base and abort the landing. But they didn't. I credit the test pilot mentality of those guys who pushed it to the limit every time they flew any kind of craft. Armstrong was bound and determined this would be the day man landed on the Moon. And he did it.
Of course, almost everyone is aware he was the first person out of the hatch and the first human being from the planet Earth to ever set foot on a place that was not Earth. That's a distinction which will live into eternity. I can't imagine the feelings he must have had to perform that duty. What an awesome responsibility. And what an awesome, exhilarating feeling it must have been. There he was, a single human being, standing alone on another world. That single moment made boys and girls around the world want to explore space. He was the true role model of the 20th century. But then something changed.
Over the years, those in charge decided exploring space was just not as important. The decision was made to do earth-orbit missions and build the International Space Station. Though that is important and continues to be important, the allure of exploring space beyond our planet seems to have faded. I do believe, however, it has faded among the elected leaders more than it has among the people. There are millions of people who understand space is the ultimate key to unlocking our future.
It seems to me those in charge are more concerned about waging wars and debating welfare than actually making our country what is should be – spacefaring. We need to be exploring and we just aren't doing it enough. Manned space flight is crucial. We can send all the robots we want to wherever we want to send them, but unless there is a human presence, it just isn't the same. No robot will ever be able to "sense" a place. That is only for us humans to figure out.
Neil Armstrong knew this well. He understood the importance of the big picture yet even this true world hero was ignored by those who make the decisions. His cries fell on deaf ears. I fear those ears will continue to ignore what is right versus what is popular among the elite in this country.
The elite live in glass palaces and could care less about our planet and what will eventually become of this hunk of rock. I doubt many of them even know this hunk of rock is itself a spacecraft hurtling through the cosmos, its eventual fate to burn up.
That, to me, is the saddest aspect of losing Neil Armstrong. Only one person in the 4.5 billion year history of our planet has done what he did. And he will always be that person. Nobody else will ever be able to say, "I was the first guy to walk on the Moon." Wow, I can't imagine what that must have been like for him. To have such a place in history is so special and yet his death seems to be just another bullet point in a laundry list of news.
How we can glorify and eulogize ad nauseam the likes of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston is beyond my comprehension. We just lost one of the greatest explorers in the history of our world. What kind of statement about our society does it make when the vast majority of people are more concerned about some naked prince than they are about our heritage, our history, our makeup … our soul? A sad one, I would say.
On that fateful day in the summer of '69, Neil Armstrong changed history. He is now part of history and deserves to be treated as such. To the stars, Neil Armstrong, to the stars.