On July 21, 1969 a man named Neil Armstrong achieved something so big, so monumental, that more than forty years later humanity hasn’t come close to accomplishing anything which might eclipse it.
Yet even a man who has escaped the pull of Earth’s gravity can’t escape the inevitable doom of old age. This weekend on August 25th Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the moon, died following complications from a heart bypass surgery he underwent on August 7th. He was 82 years old. His family released a statement announcing his passing and letting the rest of the world know that we’ve lost the most important man on Earth, or off it.
There have been other great achievements in the history of our species. Other men have been part of important firsts, made amazing discoveries. But it’s hard to think of any bigger than this one, an achievement so big it couldn’t even happen on our planet. It’s one thing to build a boat out of wood and sail to unknown lands, it’s another to launch yourself into the sky in an attempt to touch the lights above.
Neil Armstrong wasn’t just the guy who happened to be first out of the airlock when Apollo 11 became the first human-piloted spacecraft to touch down on the moon. We might never have landed on the moon at all, if not for Armstrong’s steely-eyed courage. During their lander’s descent to the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969, Neil and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin were in trouble. Their fragile craft was running out of fuel and in grave danger of entering an unsafe landing area. Things weren’t going to plan. Out there all alone with no backup, Neil could have given up and ran back home. Instead Armstrong calmly took over manual control of the lander. All their plans were out the window and their margin for error had evaporated, but rather than running for safety Neil Armstrong did it his way, and successfully touched down. Then he put on his spacesuit, stepped out the door, and said the most important words anyone has ever spoken:
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil’s accomplishment forever changed the way we look at the universe. Nothing can or will be the same again. He didn’t do it on his own, and he wasn’t the only one to do it. He had help from thousands of brilliant scientists and millions of American taxpayers. He was followed out the door of his lander, the Eagle, by another brave astronaut and eventually by other bold missions to the lunar surface. But Neil Armstrong was first and in my book, that makes him the most important man who ever lived.
Though always uncomfortable with the title, Armstrong was a bonafied hero, a risk taker who believed in something bigger than himself, a man who knew without a doubt that mankind must break the bonds of Earth, and that doing so was worth the price of his life should the Apollo 11 mission have required him to give it. It didn’t and Armstrong lived on to become not only the first man to walk on the surface of another world, but also the first to do it and then come home to tell humanity about what he found.
Armstrong did that second job, the job of telling the rest of us what was out there, as well as he could. He never did go back to the moon. In fact he retired from the Airforce altogether in 1971. Various groups attempted to appropriate his fame, political parties sought to win him to their cause. Neil ignored them. He avoided the glory and fame which he was due, whenever possible. Neil even refused to sign autographs, because he discovered his signature was being sold off for large amounts of money. Instead Armstrong became a teacher, and did that job for eight years after his retirement from NASA.
His name is known the world over and no one will ever forget what Neil Armstrong did. Now that he’s gone, it’s up to the rest of us to keep doing it. If humanity is ever to survive, heck if we’re ever going to take the giant leap necessary to evolve into something better, we have to follow Neil’s small footsteps. Let’s make sure his risk counts for something. Mars is next. It’s time for another giant leap.