On The Passing Of An American Icon

I guess this is nothing more than personal musings on the passing of an American icon.  On Saturday, August 25th, Neil Armstrong died at 82 years of age. In a very large sense he, along with the rest of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts, can be compared to Christopher Columbus, Roald Amundsen, and the first south seas sailor in a dugout canoe to spot the Hawaiian Islands. There was the obligatory 5 minute news coverage of his death and his magnum opus achievement – being the first human to walk on another world. I first learned of his death yesterday afternoon (August 26th), on Google News. By this morning, it had disappeared off their list as a top news item. To be replaced with two sports celebrities and a story about the delay in a scripted political convention where everyone knows the outcome.

His death means something different, and more profoundly sad to me, than the mere passing of another human being. To me, it symbolically marks the burial of an era in America. An era epitomized by the quest for exploration, and the adventure, risks, and rewards of pushing back the edge of the unknown in a search for knowledge.  And, the feeling that we were all in it together.  I’m old enough to remember when Russia put Sputnik in space, followed by Yuri Gagarin. After Americans got over the shock, we took up the challenge, and when Alan Shepard made his suborbital flight, traffic came to a standstill as people listened on the radio, holding their breath.

Maybe it’s nothing more than nostalgia on my part, as I get farther away from the starting blocks and closer to the finish line.  I recall watching the live, grainy, black and white broadcast of Armstrong taking that “One small step for a man,” with my grandmother. She was born in 1895, and told me she had not seen anything that amazing since she personally saw Orville Wright fly his flying machine. (And, as an aside, she was the last person in my family who was alive when the Chicago Cubs won a World Series).

I never thought I would live to see a day when America no longer had a manned space program. Worse than that, we seemed to have walked away from it, shrugging our shoulders with the attitude of “been there, done that.” In 2010, President Obama cancelled the next program for manned lunar exploration, citing cost overruns ($9 billion compared to $1 trillion in military spending to maintain the empire, and if you include the rest of the budget, less than 9¢ per dollar). 

Yes, NASA recently did a phenomenal job of putting a robot on Mars. And, we do have Americans in the International Space Station, who get there by hitch hiking on Russian rockets, having gone where hundreds have gone before (to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson).

Apparently, like the Europeans that explored the New World, Portugal got overtaken by Spain, who was in turn, overtaken by France, and then England. China has now become the third nation to put men in space, and I doubt that India, or other nations, are going to be that far behind.  In the meantime, as a nation, we find ourselves fascinated by the mundane, and treat as mundane the fascinating. Maybe I can take some slight consolation in this. At least the Cubs haven’t quit.

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Comment by Loren Miller on August 27, 2012 at 1:20pm

I remember, the day before Apollo 11 lifted off, Armstrong was taking another run in the "flying bedstead," likely to put the last touch on his edge in anticipation of the landing on the moon ... except that this time, something went seriously south on the bedstead and he had to eject, literally a heartbeat before that ungainly device crashed.  And the next day, he saddled up in Columbia like it was another day at the office for him ... and for Neil, it was.

Indeed, Neil himself said it was the descent to the moon which was the real highlight of that mission to him, far more than his famous "one step for a man."  I can't say I'm surprised either.  That descent was putting to work all the time he spent in the flying bedstead and other simulators, anticipating what DID happen by understanding what could happen, reacting to it rather than overreacting.  Seems to me that's what test pilots are supposed to do, isn't it?

Fact is, Neil was CLASS, plain and simple.  After Apollo, he lived his life, probably made appearances here and there, but was never that much in the public eye, the way I suspect he wanted things.  Doesn't change the fact that when we lost Neil, we lost a giant.  That simple.

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