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Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon represented much more than the winning of the space race or even the greatest technological triumph of the 20th century. Assume for the moment that the human race not only survives but prospers over the next 50,000 years. By then the vast majority of people may live on other planets, perhaps space colonies, perhaps even around planets outside the solar system. From that perspective, his first step on the moon would mark the symbolic start of humanity's next great and perhaps final migration.
Of course, Mr. Armstrong himself very seldom talked in such lofty terms. He insisted that any of the astronauts in the Apollo crew rotation could have gotten his flight assignment, but there was more to it than that. NASA recognized his remarkable ability to make split-second decisions in a crisis, a skill that paid off in the final minutes of the Apollo 11 landing.
In 1969, Mr. Armstrong's value as the Apollo 11 commander was best explained by a CBS commentator this way: If you were marooned on a desert island with one of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, who would it be? The highly personable Mike Collins would keep up your spirits and hope for rescue. Buzz Aldrin, the scientist, would figure out a way to convert sea water to drinking water, build a storm-proof shelter, etc. Only Neil Armstrong would find a way to get you off.
ERIC M. FISCHER
First Published August 29, 2012 12:00 am