In Memorium: Neil Armstrong

Monday, September 3, 2012

If you are a reader of my blog, you will know that this is only the second time that I have used "In Memorium" in the title of a post.  Many others have deserved such recognition in the period between that November 2011 item on Andy Rooney and this piece on the passing of American astronaut Neil Armstrong and I apologize for not being as vigilant as I should concerning my submissions.

In that previous post, I said I would use that slug individuals "deserving thanks for their contributions to journalism and/or the media."  You might be scratching your head right now trying to see the connection between the Ohio astronaut and those two areas but, for me and scores of millions of people around the world, his July 1969 achievement was the first news story that we can actually remember happening in our lifetimes.

I was eight years old back in the "Summer of '69" and my sphere of media interaction mostly revolved around Saturday morning cartoons and broadcast network children's holiday specials (PBS's Sesame Street would not debut for another four months and our family would not have access to cable television until our move to Wilkes-Barre the following year).  I did learn to read by practicing with newspapers my father would bring home, but I comprehended little to none of the information from the selected articles.

The decade of the 1960s was one of great social upheaval in the United States and the nightly newscasts kept the nation up-to-date with the tumultuous events from Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles and other major metropolitan locales.  The Vietnam War was in full swing and those regular reports provided the grim realities--in both data and audiovisual formats--of that Southeast Asian conflict.  Since my parents have passed away and cannot confirm this, I am guessing that I was either sent away from the room when the news came on or else I simply continued on with whatever activity I was originally doing while ignoring what was on the set.

The December 6, 1968 cover of Time Magazine, depicting the then-current "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union

Another national initiative in the public arena was the "Space Race" we undertook under President Kennedy to catch up to (and surpass) the Soviet Union and their early dominance in extraterrestrial exploration.  My brothers and I were fully ensconced with the Madison Avenue contribution to the nation's awareness in the way of space-related toys.  Major Matt Mason and Billy Blastoff were our generation's direct connections to Alan Shepard, John Glenn and other US astronauts who were risking life and limb to extend our country's reach into outer space.  Tang, an instant beverage product closely associated with the space program, was on our breakfast table nearly everyday.  I do have vague recollections of some of the early Apollo missions, especially the Apollo 8 Christmas 1968 flight, where that crew became the first humans to orbit around the moon, but that then-historic milestone was nothing like what was to happen less than seven months later.

"Earthrise", as seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts when they orbited around the moon in December 1968 (photo courtesy of NASA)

We, like the majority of the American television audience at the time, were a CBS family.  Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite was regarded as the most trusted man on that medium and I cannot recall seeing any other host grace our 25" color console television in my youth.  As I am currently reading about in Douglas Brinkley's biography on him, he was the network's "go-to guy" concerning the US space program but that association almost didn't happen (Harry Reasoner, the network's first choice to cover the launch of the failed launch of Vanguard TV3, was outmaneuvered by the Missouri-born journalist by the time CBS decided to again provide live coverage for space missions).  Cronkite eventually became the leading journalist expert on space issues and NASA relied on him to get ordinary Americans to understand the agency's activities and objectives.  Through the Mercury and Gemini missions, he provided on-air coverage in which, according to Brinkley, he "publicly embraced Kennedy’s moon pledge with the ardor of a convert" into the subsequent Apollo program. 

On the Wednesday morning of July 16th, 1969, Cronkite and NASA astronaut Wally Schirra covered the launch of the Saturn V rocket for its eventual rendezvous with Earth's satellite partner (below is an 11-part series of that day's broadcast--part 6 covers the liftoff):

After a flawless departure, the Apollo 11 crew (consisting of Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins) performed one and one-half orbits of the earth before starting the 3-day, nearly 250,000 mile journey to the moon.  On July 19th, the linked craft entered lunar orbit where a final decision on the lander's ultimate target was made (the southern region of the Sea of Tranquility).  The following day, Armstrong and Aldrin made their way into the lander to perform their descent to the surface (and their inclusion to the history books).  In a story rehashed many times over the last four decades, Armstrong wrested control of the craft away from the computers at approximately 1500 feet of altitude to avoid landing in a boulder-strewn spot and set it down successfully with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining at 4:17PM Eastern Daylight Time.  Here is a NASA clip of that event:

After a 5-hour period scheduled for rest (that both astronauts ignored to prepare for the upcoming extravehicular activities), Armstrong made his way out of the lander, down its ladder, and stepped foot on the surface of the moon.  Here is the actual CBS News television coverage I watched as an 8-year old those many years ago:

I was up past my normal bedtime (10PM for the summer months) and I can remember the enthusiasm in my family's faces as we all sat in the comfort of our living room to watch this solitary soul plant his nation's (and mankind's) flag on an alien world.  Our small group was part of the estimated half a billion people around the globe who watched this historic event, then a record for any audience of a live television broadcast. 

A photocopy of the July 21, 1969 edition of The New York Times

Since this occurred in an era when newspapers were still in their heyday, my dad bought as many different daily editions as he could get at the local newsstand on the landing.  The locals, along with those from New York and Philadelphia, became part of my 'hope chest'--that was until I found my brother one day a year or so later making paper trees out of them down in our cellar (over time, I have forgiven him, realizing that we probably would have lost them in the 1972 Agnes flooding).

The front entrance to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio

In July 2004, on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of this historic event, I took our family to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio (about an hour north of Dayton along Interstate 75).  I had heard that Armstrong sometimes made appearances at the facility but on that date, unfortunately for us, he had a more important place to be.

President Bush visits with Neil Armstrong, left, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldren, right, in the Oval Office on July 21, 2004, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission on the moon. (photo courtesy of AP)

Armstrong never returned to space after his Apollo 11 mission and retired from NASA in 1971 and from teaching at the University of Cincinnati in 1979.  He was active in the business world but mostly avoided being in the public eye and never got involved in politics or show business (unlike fellow Ohioan Glenn or his Dancing with the Stars lunar companion  Aldrin did).  He underwent heart surgery on August 7, 2012 and died of complications of the procedure less than three weeks later at the age of 82.  The White House issued the following statement on August 25:

Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Neil Armstrong.

Neil was among the greatest of American heroes–not just of his time, but of all time.  When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation.  They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable–that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.

Today, Neil’s spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown–including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space. That legacy will endure–sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step.

President Obama ordered flags across the United States to fly at half-staff on the day of his internment (August 31) but Ohio governor John Kasich increased the period to have all flags in Armstrong's home state be flown at half-staff from August 27 through his burial.  Newspapers from this country and around the world featured his passing on their front pages on August 26 and 27 (a selection of them are provided below, courtesy of the Newseum):

The New York Times
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald
The Times (of London)

The New York Daily News

Il Giornale di Vicenza (Italy)
Hoy (Chicago)

United Daily News (Taiwan)

Death is something that we all have to face in our lives and the passing of our heroes is something to be expected.  Neil Armstrong was a personal hero of mine and his death did come as a saddening shock.  I have no connection to him, his family, or to those who conducted memorials to him in his original or adopted hometowns so I did not attend either.  Instead, I took my camera outside on the evening of his death and captured the image of the first quarter phase moon posted below. 

Mare Tranquillitatis, the region in which Apollo 11's Eagle landed on that summer day over 43 years ago, is visible between Mare Serenatatis (Sea of Serenity) and Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fertility) and to the left of Mare Crisium (Sea of Crisis).  Despite the transpired time, footprints left by Armstrong and Aldrin (and the 10 other astronauts who walked on the moon) remain in the same pristine condition as the days they were made on the lunar surface.

Neil Armstrong's footprint on the lunar surface (photo courtesy of NASA)

As he left those first imprints, Armstrong uttered the now famous (although thought to be misquoted) words--"one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind".  While that is a true statement, it also signified my own personal "leap" into the larger consciousness of our global--and extraterrestrial--surroundings.  Seeing such an historic event as it was happening ignited my own current events "booster rockets" and helped set the course my life has taken since then.  Thank you, Mr. Armstrong, for your service to this nation and to helping me become aware of my own horizons.

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