A great hero leaves behind a proud legacy
"That's one small step for ... man, one giant leap for mankind."
- Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969
With those now-immortal words initially heard by hundreds of millions of viewers back on earth, the world learned one of humanity's greatest challenges had been accomplished - that a human being had finally set foot upon the moon.
On Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the man who uttered those words, took the ultimate leap into the unknown, dying at the age of 82. But he leaves behind a legacy that will never be forgotten.
For those who weren't around in the late 50s and 1960s, it was a most exciting time indeed. The space race was in full swing between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and the world waited with baited breath to see which side would be the first to step forth upon the lunar surface.
It had been mankind's dream to go to the moon ever since it was discovered that it was a nearby celestial body - our closest neighbor in the solar system. But although authors such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells wrote classical tales of such undertakings, it remained little more than a dream for many centuries, due to technical limitations.
Then rocketry was developed in the early part of the 20th century, a technology that was given a substantial boost during World War II. After the war, it became apparent to scientists and the public that space flight would soon change from speculation to reality - probably within a generation.
This was given a huge boost when the Soviet Union announced that it had placed the first man-man satellite - Sputnik I - into orbit around the earth back in 1957. It was the height of the Cold War, and U.S. pride was stung by the fact that the Russians had gotten into space first. The only answer possible was to research, test and build furiously, in the hopes we could catch up and surpass the opposition, and become the first nation to send a man to the moon.
In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy predicted that the U.S. would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Sadly, Kennedy did not live to see his prediction come to pass, but the late president's ambition and drive were among the factors that kept us going through all the trials and tribulations of those formative years.
There was the Mercury program, which saw Alan Shepard as the first American in space; as well as John Glen as the first U.S. astronaut to circle the globe three times. These and many other accomplishments thrilled the American public, as we edged closer and closer to the ultimate goal. But it remained a real nail biter right up until the end.
As the 60s started to wind down, it became apparent that the U.S. was getting close - very close. The Apollo program had been initiated by NASA, and each successful mission demonstrated that the moon was coming within our grasp. The Apollo 8 mission had sent a crew which had successfully flown around the moon, but not landed.
In 1969, NASA announced that Apollo 11 would be the first moon shot. That summer, everyone waited and wondered. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were picked to man the mission. Armstrong and Aldrin flew in a special lander to the lunar surface, while Collins remained behind as pilot of the mother ship, Columbia. On July 20, at 20:17 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), the lunar lander touched down, and a few hours later Armstrong emerged from the ship and
stepped onto the moon's surface. What made things even more thrilling was it was the first time in history such a major human accomplishment had been televised, with approximately 450 million people viewing the history-making event. Buzz Aldrin would step out of the lunar lander about 20 minutes later, making him the second man to walk on the moon.
All told, the two men would spend about two-and-a-half hours exploring the lunar surface before returning to the ship, and ultimately the earth with Mike Collins.
Following the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong chose not to return to space, opting instead to retire from NASA in 1971 and pursue other interests. Armstrong tended to avoid the limelight, living quietly and modestly until his death on Saturday. He declined to make money off his name, and became upset with a number of people when he learned they had attempted to do so without his knowledge or permission. Yet he was always willing to join in celebrations of the success of the Apollo program, because of the triumph it represented to NASA and the American people.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Neil Armstrong's legacy is to examine those words he spoke over 40 years ago as he stepped on the moon's surface. He did not say this was a triumph of American know-how. He did not say, "Hey folks, we won," referring to the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Instead he said, "...and one giant leap for mankind." When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon it represented one of the greatest triumphs for every man, woman and child - past, present and future.
One of the greatest giants of the space age has passed on and is now a part of the sea of history which is the fate of all mankind. Let us hope that mankind will continue to honor Neil Armstrong's legacy and pursue the pioneer spirit in which he and others have blazed the trails for the rest of us to follow.