Farewell to a hero

Tue, Aug 28, 2012, 01:00

THE TERM hero has come into frequent use with the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong, his exploits as the first human to set foot on the lunar surface the reason he so richly deserves the accolade. Remembering his accomplishment takes one back to a different time, when perhaps heroes were in more plentiful supply than today.

It was a time when people of exceptional courage were willing to risk their lives to embark on space travel, relying on “advanced” computer systems that were no more powerful than a modern-day calculator. One could argue that the risk to life when orbiting in these cramped capsules was unwarranted given the US space programme was tailored to fit the cold war politics of the day. The US and then Soviet Union sought to demonstrate ideological supremacy through the technological success of being the first to put a man on the moon.

And yet the great drama and adventure of human space travel rose above the geopolitical dispute to capture the public imagination. People could immediately recognise the inherent dangers involved in blasting off into space and those early space travellers – all men – became modern day heroes. Astronauts such as John Glenn, in 1962 becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, returned to ticker-tape parades, visits to the White House and celebrity status. Ferrying astronauts to the moon – and landing them there – was of a different order of magnitude. A safe touchdown by the lunar lander had to be followed by a successful blast-off from the surface and redocking with the orbiting command capsule. Bad enough if two astronauts were lost in a crash landing. There could be no more public a failure, in human or geopolitical terms, than being forced to leave healthy astronauts behind to die a slow oxygen-starved death due to a technical fault.

Certainly the landing was as tense as any cinematic action adventure with Armstrong switching off the computer and bringing the lander down with only 17 seconds of fuel left. And debate continues about whether he fluffed his lines as his foot left the last ladder rung to press down into the thick lunar dust, declaring it to be alternatively a “small step for man” or “small step for a man”. What is not in dispute is his having earned the right to be declared a hero, not just by his fellow US citizens, but by all citizens of planet Earth. His small step represented a giant leap for mankind, a reaching out towards a reality beyond our planet. It was an act of heroism by any standard.

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