Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Man Who Never Came Down

Neil Armstrong’s name shouldn’t be a household word. Not any more.

Don’t go Chernobyl on me yet. Pay attention to what I’m saying. Neil Armstrong, the quiet, modest, engineer and astronaut wasn’t quite 39 in June 1969 when he climbed into the Apollo 11 command module. He never made it down. Instead, a few days later, the First Man On The Moon made a triumphant return to Earth, where he remained an icon, a symbol to the very end of his days.

The First Man On The Moon was a hell of a guy; a hero to the world. But poor Neil: we sent him up there, all of us, hoping, dreaming, wishing, watching that shining ball in the sky at night. We sent him up there on a raging tower of hellfire barely controlled by instruments and systems so primitive they wouldn’t even be sufficient for a modern family car. We sent him up on a wing and a prayer, nobody knowing — least of all the man himself and his companions — whether we could even get him to the moon in one piece, let alone bring them back alive.

We sent three men up there. Two men touched down on the moon. One of them made it back. But Neil Armstrong got lost; marooned. Somehow, we replaced him with The First Man On The Moon.

Credit where it’s due: The First Man On The Moon played his part well. He was modest and humble, acting as an inspiration to people everywhere, both in public and in private. But you have to wonder what he gave up, don’t you? The actor Anthony Perkins sometimes spoke bitterly of his role in Psycho — the role that defined him forever in cinema. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy both publicly struggled against their better known incarnations. The First Man On The Moon never complained at all: he just kept being the role model, the hero, the vital symbol of the greatest of all human achievements. He was an amazing human being. It’s a shame that he had to be so amazing for so very long. But that wasn’t his fault. He did the job, and did it perfectly, and he deserves the greatest of respect for that.

But you and I, now...  in a very real sense,  everyone who looked up at the moon and thought of Armstrong and the others, the lonely footprints, the grainy black-and-white camera footage — we never let Neil Armstrong come back down. Thirty-nine years he lived, man and boy. The First Man On The Moon got forty-three.

There’s nothing wrong with recognising heroic actions. There’s nothing wrong with making a role model out of someone who behaves modestly and well, works with a team, and achieves something genuinely historic as a result. But it’s past time — long past! — that we asked what our hero, the First Man On The Moon might have wanted from us.

Who discovered Antarctica?

Give up? It’s a trick question anyhow. Nobody’s sure whether Cook’s expedition spotted it amongst all the ice in 1773. If they didn’t, then it was probably William Smith and Edward Bransfield in 1820, locating the Antarctic Peninsula.. At much the same time, a Russian called Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen apparently became the first to see the Antarctic continent proper.

Now: who was the first to reach the South Pole?

Oh, that’s easy, right? Everybody knows it was Roald Amundsen, just ahead of Robert Scott’s doomed expedition.

Smith, Bransfield, von Bellinghausen; these are not household names, though they may well be the names of heroic men. Amundsen and Scott, though — why, they went to the South Pole!

Neil Armstrong went to the moon knowing it would change his life. But he neither wanted nor expected  to be the First Man On The Moon forever afterwards. Everything ever said or written about the man suggests he thought he was part of the beginning of something great, something wonderful. He made it as plain as possible: for him, the trip to the moon was just a small step for mankind, though it was a great leap for a single man.

Armstrong went to the moon expecting us to keep taking small steps. The First Man On The Moon spent his whole life wondering when we might remember how to walk again, if ever.

We put Neil Armstrong on the moon with the hopes and desires of a whole world, and then we left him there. We spent billions on wars, and movies and cars and mobile phones and more wars, and meanwhile the Saturn V programme went away, replaced by a shuttle fleet that was never even intended to go as far as the moon. When the shuttles got old and tired, we gave up even that much.

The first of our early mechanical probes has finally gone extra-solar. Launched thirty-five years ago, Voyager One has only just left the boundaries of our star system. In those thirty-five years, what have we done? Well, there are robots on Mars. Probes have visited most of the planets, the odd asteroid, and even the Sun.

But human beings?

We made Neil Armstrong into The First Man On The Moon. By this time, he should have been Neil Armstrong again. He should have been one of a list: the first person on Mars, the first to Venus, the first to the moons of Jupiter, and more. It might not yet be a long list, but at least he wouldn’t have been alone any more. He could have stopped being The First Man On The Moon, and he could have come home at last.

It’s too late for Neil Armstrong. He’s never coming home now. We can’t rescue him. We can only eulogise the First Man On The Moon, and admit our own failure in abandoning the man who went up there in the first place.

But that doesn’t have to be the end. It shouldn’t be the end. For the sake of Neil Armstrong, for the sake of our survival as a species, it must not be the end.

Eugene Cernan is seventy-eight years old. Chances are he’d give almost anything to live long enough that he can stop being the Last Man On The Moon.

For the sake Eugene Cernan; for the sake of the whole world; for the sake of every human being yet unborn: let’s go.


  1. He stayed on the moon because we cannot get any farther.

    At least not yet.

    Armstrong was the quintessential American: not too bright, but courageous enough to take chances, skilled enough to turn risks into victories, and optimistic to a fault - so optimistic he thought, as you point out, that he was part of the beginning, and not the beginning of the end.

    I was 10 years old in 1969, sitting on a couch with my family, with a tiny shot glass full of really bad champagne - the first I ever tasted - handed to me by my mother, who told me she bought that bottle because what was about to happen was important, and she gave me that glass so I would never forget what I was about to see, because it was important, because it was the first step of many to come, that - who knows? - my children may live on the moon or on mars or beyond.

    She was wrong, but only via the optimism she shared with Armstrong. No one anticipated how technically difficult it would be to get beyond those footsteps. No one realized that humans cannot survive very long in space. No one really understood how important it is for a planet to have a magnetic field.

    Armstrong didn't fail. My mother wasn't wrong. The world has been waiting for the need to travel out there to meet the desire to do so.

    That need is rapidly approaching, and billionaires are plotting on how to exploit resources in the asteroid belt, and their plans are dead serious. The tech is almost there. Almost.

    It really is just a matter of time.

    And each time I drink champagne, I remember Neil Armstrong.

    Ad Astra.

  2. You're right. We can't. Yet. But I recall reading something just the other day. Apparently, a single year of military expenditure in the recent Iraq adventure actually accounts for more money than NASA has spent in its entire lifetime.

    I wonder just how far we could have gone if the money had gone to people like Armstrong, instead of people like Dick Cheney.

    You're right. Armstrong didn't fail. But I still say that the rest of us failed him, and I think it's time we admit that, and try like hell to do better.

  3. Really I can't agree more. When I think of everything they achieved with what they had available to them at the time, it boggles my mind. They did it because they wanted to beat the rival superpower and they did it because the assassinated President wanted it to be done before the end of the decade. And they made it by six months.

    It's proof for me that we can do whatever we want to do if the will is there to do it. Somehow along the way, this has been lost. It is more than money ... it is a mindset.

    The symbolism of it all is quite potent. The moon landing symbolised hope for the future, pride in achievement and a will to succeed. Maybe others will think there have been better examples since but this is the one that sticks out for me.

    I have a soft spot for Neil - always have - purely because of his very quiet, everyman, unassuming demeanour. He went to the moon and then he went back to his life. I think as you say, he never expected this to be the pinnacle. He thought he was at the beginning of it all.

    Sorry for rambling. Nice post Mr Flinthart.

  4. Wonderful piece on Neil Armstrong. And better than NBC news achieved with its tribute to Neil Young, first man to walk on the moon dies at 82.

    You are also right that "Neil Armstrong’s name shouldn’t be a household word. Not any more". The astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson (yes the man who deplaneted Pluto) reflected a similar feeling when he looked up at the Saturn V rocket in the Smithsonium. He said it looks hell impressive but it shouldn't. Any other piece of transport that we look at that is 40years old draws comments of quaint, or how did they ever accomplish what they did in such a frail thing. But unfortunately we built it and that was where it peaked.

    Neil Armstrong will be remembered as the first, just not the first of so few, so far.

  5. Fuck Degrasse Tyson. Pluto is a planet. That's my view and I am sticking to it.

  6. PNB, I said as much about Pluto to my four year old yesterday when we were looking at his kiddie encyclopedia.

    Pluto is still a fucking planet in this house.

  7. I think Mickey and Goofy may disagree with you...

  8. The Disney Corporation has a lot to answer for. But that is a serious digression.