Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, Ad Astra

Neil Armstrong, Ad Astra

Dear Friends,

One of my heroes died yesterday afternoon. You might have heard of him. He might be one of your heroes, as well. That is likely if you were a thirteen year old boy on July 20, 1969. His name was Neil Armstrong. He was the steely eyed missile man who flew a space ship clear to the Moon and was the first Human to touch its face, to trod its dust under his boot heels and come back home with a trove of dumb old, very old rocks.

Armstrong had previously shown his mettle flying fighter planes over Korea, blasting toward the edge of space in rocket planes that nobody was sure would real work, and safely landing a crazy contraption called the Gemini 8 that spun out of control one hundred and four miles from Terra Firma. It was spinning at one revolution per second while coupled to another craft. He and his crew mate could barely see straight, their eyeballs bulging and heads swimming from the force of the gyrations. Armstrong could hardly lift his right hand and hit the small button to turn the damned machine off. He worried that he might vomit into his space helmet and thus suffocate, but did manage to do what a real test pilot always wishes to do. He got himself and his partner back down on the ground in one piece.

About three years later on Armstrong faced a couple of other challenges not anticipated in his training to make a landing on Luna. First off, there were then no really good maps of their intended place of touch down. As they, he, the Commander, and Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s pilot, descended to the surface they found that the supposedly safe terrain was littered with boulders and craters. They had overshot their place of supposed safety and were running low on fuel. Neil and Buzz, saying not a word to each other as they kept mission control a quarter of a million miles away apprised of the mess, morphed into a four armed, quadruple-eyed single pilot. One took control of the altitude of their little craft, and the other manned the joystick controlling its forward motion. With less than half a minute of fuel left, they made a safe landing. Had they not, their craft made with a skin as thin as a foil wrapper on a piece of chewing gum, would have become their coffin… and not a very fine coffin as expensive as it was.

Anyhow, once down on the surface, they were told to get some sleep. Who can make a perilous journey to land on the friggin’ Moon and then want to take a nap? They refused their orders and got dressed for a little jaunt. Of course, they had to take along that danged American flag to plant and their first problem was getting the thing stuck into the hard lunar soil so goddamn President Nixon could interrupt their work on a useless task for the TV camera for a useless interview with the “boys” to be telecast and recorded on a tape that would be lost in an obscure closet somewhere yet to be discovered in Texas… or maybe California… or maybe Florida. These guys just risked their necks to get to the Moon and they had to stop what they were doing to pose for a dumb ass TV commercial for a crooked politician.

Whatever. The fellahs did get back to work. Buzz spent a good deal of time doing what seemed to be the Bunny Hop as he figured out how to move around in those ridiculous suits that were like balloons you wore. Neil got most of the chores with the digging and laying out experiments as his pilot looked like he was high on nitrous oxide at a Grateful Dead show before that camera. Then they had to go back into their rickety little Moon Ship for that snooze before going back up to the orbiting command capsule… if the rocket in their own ship would light as promised.

That proved to be a problem. The rocket was actually in fine shape, but Buzz bumped into the switch that turned it on when he was getting back into the Lunar Module. It broke off. Fortunately, he had a Bic pen. He took off the cap and jammed it into the switch. They were on their way back home. Buzz is still both proud and abashed by this episode, forty-three years later.

So, the guys, Armstrong and Aldrin and the command module pilot, Mike Collins, head back home in what had become at this point, well, essentially a flying outhouse. After six days with about as much personal space as a phone booth provides… things were getting a little stinky. When the recovery crew opened the hatch to the Apollo 11 capsule, they almost lost their lunch. No portion of a trip to the Moon and back, including prying three adventurers out of their tiny space craft is for sissies.

Next came the quarantine in a little trailer home. The astronauts needed to be isolated to protect the crew of the aircraft carrier that had picked them up from imaginary space bugs. The thing was hermetically sealed but fitted with a large picture window so Nixon, yes him again, could drop on by to have the plucky boys make another TV ad for him. He took a short break from compiling lists of Jews and other enemies, plotting burglaries and assassinations to say how proud he was of the brave Americans confined to a silver tube on wheels after spending seven days at the edge of Death at every moment, with each flip of a switch, with every move in a terribly confined space with no escape. Now, they were trapped yet again having to put up with Nixon.

Of course, Nixon had almost nothing to do with the guys triumphant and daring trip to the surface of the Moon and back. The men who actually engineered the politics and economics required to perform such a feat, JFK and LBJ, were either murdered or banished in disgrace. Nixon’s joy at this reality was barely concealed behind his smug and clueless pronouncement of the achievement that he shared with the brave explorers. They put up with his nonsense and went back to their jobs, now essentially working as lab rats being examined to see if they would die some hideous death from an alien microbial beasty.  The boys were good natured about living in their terrarium like some exhibit at a zoo. They played a lot of cards and gave interviews over the phone and did their best to explain what they had done and experienced to the folks back at NASA and JPL, and to the world.

After being let out of the big test tube, the guys were sent to perform in parades and publicity functions. They pretty much hated that. When the hoopla was done, they each went their own ways. Buzz had a hard time for a while: depression and much booze. He eventually rebounded to become the preeminent Celestial Mechanic of our age. His ideas might finally get us to Mars. Collins went on to a life of public service and as a business leader in the private sector. Armstrong took a path rather different than his two colleagues who sailed with him to the Moon and back.

He moved back to his home in Ohio and became an engineering professor at a little state college. He seldom made public appearances but for showing up in class on time. He taught young people about the practical matters of solving little problems or hard problems for folks; making devices that might just become pieces of the next great space ship or a washing machine.

Armstrong could have cashed in his golden ticket of fame. He did not. He chose to make a modest living as a teacher and tend to his family and community. He touched the face of the Moon, but he chose to be firmly planted and steady to his principles right here on Earth. He humbly demonstrated to us all how to be Human when an entire planet assumes that you are more than Human. A little light went out of the world with the departure of a modest, brave and hard working man. Tonight or any night, if it is clear and the Moon is high, give that piece of rock and dust a wink and nod. One of our kind dared go there first and stomp gentle on its rough hide.

Hic Finis Est


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