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.