I recently read Buzz Aldrin's 2009 autobiography and, after hearing the news of Neil Armstrong's death yesterday, thought about Aldrin's quote when he first bounded down the steps of the lunar module. "Beautiful, beautiful," he said. "Magnificant desolation."
I love that quote. I don't think I'd be able to think of anything that poetic off the top of my head while standing on the f*cking moon.
Neil Armstrong, who passed away from heart surgery complications yesterday at 82, wasn't one for those grand gestures. It's definitely possible he screwed up the pre-written first lines said on the moon. (It was meant to be "That's one small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind.") He was a quiet guy who identified first as an engineer and who never really felt comfortable with the adulation that came with his accomplishment. Thousands of people put the Apollo missions on the moon, he said. It wasn't right for one guy to get the attention.
He was right—to an extent. Armstrong's achievement shouldn't overshadow what the U.S. was able to do during its best days 40 years ago. But even though Armstrong shied away from the "hero" description, we shouldn't. If anyone fits the bill of a hero, it was Armstrong.
Putting aside his obvious, most famous accomplishment, did you know Armstrong came milliseconds away from dying on two different occassions before the Apollo 11 mission? In 1966, as commander of the Gemini VIII, he piloted the ship through a critical mission failure that caused it to begin rolling at one revolution per second while orbiting Earth. Fuel dropped to 30%, and Armstrong had to override the computer to prepare for an emergency landing, all while the craft span so fast most men would have long lost consciousness. He kept awake, though, and successfully piloted the Gemini through the atmosphere and into a safe landing in the Pacific Ocean.
Then, there was what happened during preparation for the Apollo 11 mission. His lunar landing trainer quit on him, total mission failure. He had the presence of mind to eject just before it crashed.
Let's also not forget his actual descent to the moon, and what could have happened if anyone else was piloting the ship. After noticing the computer intended to have the Eagle land in a deadly, boulder-strewn area, Armstrong was forced to take semi-automatic control of the ship, which NASA had planned to be a last-case scenerio. He steadily lowered it to the surface with just 25 seconds of fuel left, no problem at all.
Not only was Neil the rightful guy to do something no one else had ever done in human history, he was a genuine bonafide badass, with ice-cold water in his veins. And even though he had every right in the world to brag about his accomplishments, and to cash in on his celebrity, he didn't. That's heroic.