I will never forget those days that began with the July 16, 1969 launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Since I could remember, I had been a nerd and obsessed with science fiction, the space program, and our competition in space with the Soviets. I was caught up in the emotion of having the US beat the USSR to the moon. I had watched the launch on TV and kept the TV on non-stop (this before 24 hour cable coverage) just in case there were developments on the long voyage to the moon, and NASA needed my help.
The landing on the moon, July 20, was like Christmas, Hanukkah, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. When a few hours later, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon and uttered his somewhat corny "one step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," I was ecstatic beyond all description. We had beat the Soviets! The American flag was on the moon! American English was the "official" language of that orb! I even set up an old Bell & Howell wind up 8mm camera on a tripod in front of the TV set to film the grainy b&w images.
The moon landing was one of the few bright spots in what had been a dismal decade, and things were only going to worse. It was a time of war, riots, economic stagnation, and doubts about the ability of the United States to triumph not only over the Soviets but over the excesses of our own culture. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman (Apollo 8) were heroes of mine as they showed that America still had it when it counted. I was always impressed most of all by Armstrong who struck me as a classic almost Jimmy Stewart sort of hero. He was old time military; not a lot of flash or bravado, just quiet courage and competence. The mission is what matters, and it doesn't matter what the mission is: "You want me to bomb a bridge in Korea? OK, let's go." "You want me to deliver five tons of Girl Scout cookies to Ulan Bator? OK, when do you need them?" "You want me to land on the moon? OK, when?"
I never got to meet him. I, however, did meet Buzz Aldrin when I was Charge of an Embassy in Asia. He had come by to visit Arthur C. Clarke. The Embassy put on an event with both of them. I got to introduce them to the press and to the crowd that had come to hear them speak. Afterwards, I spent a considerable amount of time talking with them about science fiction and the future of space exploration, including getting a very detailed description with drawings on a napkin of Clarke's idea for a space elevator. (I was in nerd heaven.) Both were extremely distressed that NASA had gone the Space Shuttle route and had stopped going to the moon. Clarke and Aldrin seemed to resent that Armstrong was not interested in promoting the commercial possibilities of space, and, at least then, in urging NASA to take a different path. Clarke told me, "He wants to be left alone. He doesn't like publicity." I remembered replying, "I guess he doesn't want to be another Charles Lindberg." Clarke looked up from his wheelchair and snorted, "Hell, nobody should want to be Charles Lindberg!"
Neil Armstrong, thank you for your courage, patriotism, and competence. Thank you for that glorious day 43 years ago.
Neil Armstrong, RIP.