Armstrong’s legacy

While we think we’re the masters of our universe, from out in space things can look quite different.

US Astronaut Neil Armstrong 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Astronaut Neil Armstrong 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Whether you were a wide-eyed five-year-old, a self-absorbed teenager or world-wise adult, you’ll likely never forget the moment. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder outside the lunar module, and with a little jump, became the first person to set foot on the moon.
Some 600 million people – a fifth of the world’s population – watched or listened to the moon landing, the largest audience for any single event in history. In a fast-forward world hurling akimbo amid the turmoil of Vietnam War protests and civil rights strife, and less than a month before the American counterculture peaked with a display of mass humanity at Woodstock, Armstrong and his crew – Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – gave everyone pause.
The majesty, grandeur and awe of such an otherworldly event taking place in our lifetime immediately placed Armstrong in the annals of history.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said in a crackling statement that was broadcast around the world, and for a moment, we all felt that indeed, we were part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether a small step or a giant leap, Armstrong’s act was a reminder of what humans are capable when their potential is realized and they work together for a noble cause.
The 38-year-old Armstrong had picked simple words with a simple message that carried thousands of years of world history. If his goal was to inspire, then he surely succeeded, as the message continues to reverberate.
One person who was undoubtedly followed the moon landing with slack-jawed awe and admiration was a 14-year-old student from Beersheba named Ilan Ramon. Less than five years later, he graduated as a fighter pilot from the Israel Air Force Flight School and began an illustrious career, which eventually led him to the NASA space program and his own historic role as Israel’s first astronaut.
When Neil Armstrong visited Israel for the first time in 2007, four years after Ramon and his colleagues aboard the space shuttle Columbia died during reentry, he paid a condolence call to Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow.
“He requested to meet me and console me,” Ramon told Yediot Aharonot, adding that she found him to be a warm and sensitive man who “advanced the cause of humanity.”
Armstrong never understood why so much attention was given to that first fateful footstep. Asked once how he felt knowing his footprints would likely stay on the moon’s surface for thousands of years, he answered, “I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up.”
But Armstrong was well aware of the significance of the moon mission and his role in it. Visiting the Space and Technology Museum in Haifa, he was asked by a student what lasting value the flights to the moon had. He responded, “They showed that the human species, all of us, is not forever chained to the planet Earth.”
Armstrong’s mission to the moon also taught another lesson, perhaps a more humbling one. While we think we’re the masters of our universe, from out in space things can look quite different.
Describing his impressions, Armstrong said, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
That dichotomy – man’s ability to use knowledge and technology to achieve unbelievable accomplishments while at the same time realizing that we really still don’t know very much about anything – may be the ultimate lesson that Armstrong leaves us with. That, and the need to dream.
Somewhere, perhaps there’s another 14-year-old youth who – after seeing something about Armstrong’s death and legacy – is right now watching the Apollo 11 lunar landing on YouTube. Where that inspiration will lead to is only