One final step for a reluctant hero
NEIL ARMSTRONG, the first of 12 Americans to walk on the moon between 1969 and 1972, died of complications following heart surgery in his native Ohio on Saturday. He was 82.
The first man on the moon was one of those rare beings gifted with a destiny that seemed to surpass his identity. Nine years and seven months after president John F Kennedy promised that the United States would land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth “before the decade is out”, Armstrong enthralled hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world, and gave the US final victory in its space race with the Soviet Union.
The moon walk, on July 20th, 1969, was the symbolic culmination of a decade that saw JFK’s election and assassination, the Civil Rights movement, cultural revolution and descent into the quagmire of Vietnam.
Most of the world’s population was not even born when Armstrong achieved his historic feat, and by the time he died 43 years later, he was able to walk unrecognised down the street.
Armstrong made futile protests at President Obama’s decision to cancel Nasa’s planned resumption of moon landings, and said space exploration could not be entrusted to the private sector.
For the many millions of ageing Americans who witnessed his moonwalk, Armstrong’s passing felt like the close of an era.
Few events in history have equalled the tension and suspense of the moon landing. Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin left Michael Collins in the Apollo 11 mothership, as they began the 60- mile descent to the moon in a lunar module called the Eagle. The 1969 computer was overwhelmed and began flashing red alert lights. Its guidance system malfunctioned and almost landed the Eagle in a giant crater.
Armstrong demonstrated the level-headedness for which he was chosen by watching out the window as he shifted to manual control, but his task was complicated by clouds of lunar dust kicked up by the spacecraft.
At the same time, the Eagle’s fuel supply ran so low that it risked a crash landing. Armstrong had to decide whether to abort the mission by switching to the fuel tank that would propel the Eagle back to the mothership. He eased the Eagle onto the Sea of Tranquility with only 50 seconds to spare.
“The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong announced as the entire world listened, transfixed. From mission control in Houston, the relieved reply came back: “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
After 6½ hours inside the Eagle, Armstrong descended a ladder on to the lunar surface, his blurry black and white image beamed from a camera on the spacecraft back to planet earth. He had given little thought to the words he would utter.