Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Bad Week for Armstrongs

This week, in addition to the dethroning of Lance Armstrong, erstwhile seven-time Tour de France winner, we mark the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon. Well, not foot exactly. Boot. Which gets into the whole question of what “on the moon” means. He could have stayed inside the ship and still have been “on the moon” about as much as he was in his space suit.

But the more important question is: Why is Neil Armstrong important? There were a bunch of astronauts in the program. Neil just got lucky.

And the astronauts were just there for show anyway. Really, the Apollo program involved thousands of scientists, engineers and normal people. And the Apollo program followed on the heels of Projects Mercury and Gemini, which in turn followed all kinds of other rocketry and space research going back to the first kid to fire a spitball.

Seriously, Neil Armstrong had about as much to do with the moon landing as Harrison Ford did with the creation of Indiana Jones. He got to play the part, but other people came up with the story and did all the planning, engineering and design.

But putting astronauts in made the whole thing sexy. That’s why Kennedy committed us to putting a man on the moon. It could have been a dog or a monkey. In fact, we did put several dogs and monkeys in space, but NASA didn’t really want the moon landing immortalized by the image of the flight crew peeing on the flag pole.

And having people in the space program meant all kinds of research into human survival in hostile conditions, remotely monitoring vital signs, and the invention of Tang and freeze-dried ice cream. So all in all, it was worth it.


Andrew M Greene said...

I had a similar feeling until I read this in his NYT obituary:

In the biography “First Man,” Dr. Hansen noted, “Everyone gives Neil the greatest credit for not trying to take advantage of his fame, not like other astronauts have done.” To which Janet Armstrong responded: “Yes, but look what it’s done to him inside. He feels guilty that he got all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people.”

To have been that lucky and stay humble about it? THAT'S worth celebrating and emulating.

Peter Davis said...

I certainly wouldn't belittle Armstrong's bravery or character. I'm more cynical, though, about the way society makes heroes out of people who are fortunate just because we like to put an individual human face on everything.

(Extrapolating to presidential politics is left as an exercise for the reader.)