Astronaut Neil Armstrong has died. The first person on the moon has taken another small step for a man.
He succumbed at 82, following coronary bypass surgery.
Billions live on Earth now who were not alive when Armstrong stepped off the landing pad of the lunar lander Eagle. It seems almost impossible even for those of us who on that Sunday evening gathered around the TV to watch.
The whole world was with him and Buzz Aldrin on the surface and Michael Collins circling overhead in the command module Columbia. There was momentary worldwide unity even though this was a decisive U.S. victory in a Cold War over the Soviet Union and all the evil it represented. Eagle, the national bird and emblem, and Columbia, the female personification of America, were symbols of freedom over enslavement, free enterprise beating a controlled economy, and a civilian on the moon before any soldier.
The passing of this man celebrates a bygone era of achievement but also highlights the opportunities in exploration that we have passed up. Men on the moon soon became yesterday’s history. Extra Saturn Vs, the massive launch rockets, stood ready but were never used. The television technology that gave us the ability to see Armstrong and Aldrin bounce around 239,000 miles turned our attention elsewhere.
Instead of the moon, the cameras and the reporters moved on to our war in Vietnam. Conflicts on Earth, then as now, darken the message left on the plaque bolted to the descent stage ladder: “We came in peace for all mankind.”
In a way it was a disappointment that the past shuttle program restricted us to exploration from low orbits of Earth. That is not to say that much was gained from the whole program of human flight. Experiments were conducted and are ongoing; astronauts from different countries continue to travel to the International Space Station; amazing satellites like the Hubble telescope rode up in the sky inside the shuttle cargo bay.
Nonetheless, today, humans are relatively earthbound. True, we have eyes in the sky with Hubble, but its scheduled replacement is never more than a budget bill away from obliteration. Even the Hubble is doomed to fall back to Earth because it is too expensive to continue to repair.
We have a new rover on Mars, and we can explore remotely from mission control in Pasadena, Calif., but no closer. It is like a distant video game.
The sadness is that we are not sending more people to the moon because the richest economy can’t afford it. We are broke financially, and we are fast become insolvent intellectually. We could do much more to bring the best and brightest immigrants to add to our collective intelligence. We could offer more incentives to become scientists and engineers instead of financial whiz kids too smart for their own and the world economy’s britches.
Instead of sending our young people to war we should be sending them back to the moon or Mars. We just seemed to have lost our way. We don’t know what we are doing on Earth, let alone in space.
When the Apollo program was cut short, this was the last plaque left behind: "Here Man completed his first explorations of the Moon. December 1972 A.D. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind."
Neil Armstrong was more than a guy with the right stuff stepping onto the moon. He was a modest man who seemed at peace with himself. He didn’t personally exploit his accomplishments. At his passing, his family wrote, “(He) was a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”
Armstrong wanted us to return to the moon and sail beyond. I hope the same for no other reason than we earthlings could think again about the “spirit of peace in the lives of all mankind.”
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.