Neil Armstrong, superhero from planet Earth
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When Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, it was a relatively sunny day in Philadelphia. Like the other future astronauts on my block, I was earning my wings in neighborhood Kabuki theater re-enactments of the latest episodes of "Ultraman" and "Prince Planet."
Then sometime around dinnertime came the words we waited all day to hear: "Come home, the astronauts are about to land on the moon." With all the superpowers we could muster, we cleared the streets and ran to our living rooms to gather around the sacred oracle called television.
Because I was 9 years old, I was initially underwhelmed by the visuals. Nearly a decade of Saturday matinees and cartoons had trained me to expect cosmic pageantry straight out of Marvel comic books. Instead of a mysterious vista punctuated by stars and comets, we were treated to black-and-white close-ups of obscure parts of the Lunar Module as it made its descent to the moon's surface.
The telemetry scrolling across the screen meant nothing to us kids. Those mysterious numbers were, at best, the opening credits of a movie we couldn't wait to start. The tension of the first attempted moon landing finally broke when CBS's Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and clasped the bridge of his nose with relief. Ladies and gentlemen, the Eagle had landed.
It would be a few more hours before the astronauts emerged from the Lunar Module to step upon the surface of a world our species had speculated about for at least 40,000 years. We were told that the astronauts needed to eat and double-check their equipment before embarking on the most amazing neighborhood stroll in human history. That seemed reasonable.
When Neil Armstrong, the mission's 38-year-old commander, finally descended the ladder from the Lunar Module, it was a surreal moment for all of us gathered around televisions to witness it. The old routine of staring at the moon from afar was about to be irrevocably broken. There were no commercial interruptions for hours.
Watching a human in a bulky space suit take that first step off that ladder was probably the last time everyone on the planet was on the same team. All of our divisions back on Earth must have looked silly from Neil Armstrong's vantage point. He was about to walk where only mythological characters had walked before.
All of the wars, the riots, the domestic political unrest, the assassinations of the previous year and the centuries of violence before that were momentarily forgotten as we strained to hear the crunch of a boot on the lunar surface. We never heard that crunch, but we heard Neil Armstrong's immortal words between bursts of static: "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind."
There was no taunting of the Russians as some feared would happen. There was no spiking the ball or ugly displays of nationalism. Neil Armstrong went out of his way not to repeat Icarus' mistakes. There was no hubris. Later, when he and Buzz Aldrin planted an American flag on the surface, it was seen by all as a justified marker of American accomplishment, not an imperial grab for territory. The moon was not declared our 51st state that day.
Neil Armstrong died Saturday at 82. He has been eulogized endlessly as one of the last of our national heroes, although he was someone the whole world could justifiably lay claim to. For someone who would always be remembered as the first human to walk on the moon, he never attempted to capitalize on his fame. He rarely gave interviews.
In recent years, the usually taciturn former astronaut began speaking out on the pettiness of our national budgetary priorities. The failure to adequately fund NASA for future moon missions infuriated him. He was not a fan of the Obama administration's move to make the free market an equal partner in space exploration.
It is interesting to note that immediately after the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth, so-called experts surfaced to question whether the moon landing actually happened. Retired engineers sneered at the public's gullibility and insisted the technology to pull it off didn't exist. Geologists questioned the moonscape and said it looked more like a desert in Nevada. Where did the wind come from that kept the American flag waving in the vacuum of space, they hooted. It was all filmed in a Hollywood back lot as far as they were concerned.
Those doubters are the spiritual fathers of the 9/11 "Truthers," global warming denialists and "Birthers" who continue to debase our politics today. Neil Armstrong, who actually walked on the moon, left an iconic boot print behind that will probably last as long as the moon itself. Old-fashioned science and heroism will have the last laugh.
First Published August 28, 2012 12:00 am