Freedom comes in many different chapters. The story of flight has always been to set man free from his natural shackles to the ground. Think of the burdens impaired on a world bereft of heavier than air travel; and then think of the airports we take for granted today, with thousands of jet craft aloft at any one time.
Neil Armstrong helped open a new chapter to set man free from the restrictions of gravity and time. As a test pilot aboard the X-15 rocket plane, he ascended to the edge of space before making a horizontal landing. When President Kennedy gave direction toward a moon landing, NASA moved on to simpler capsule designs, and Armstrong moved with the program.
Chris Kraft, NASA’s first flight director, recalled (in his book, Flight) Armstrong as calm, quiet, with a gentle smile, and exuding absolute confidence. That “amazing calm” voice was heard during the Gemini VIII mission, when Armstrong and Dave Scott ran into trouble. Armstrong steered the ship to the first ever space docking, but a jammed thruster led to them tumbling, spinning at close to ninety revolutions per minute. Armstrong brought the ship back under control and made an emergency splashdown.
When it came to choose who would command the Apollo 11 mission, and go first onto the moon, Neil Armstrong, “reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic, was our only choice,” notes Kraft.
Some may recall the epic journey of Armstrong and Apollo 11 as a Cold War feat of engineering, signifying little in terms of more freedom in their day to day lives. But history is written for the ages. A case in point: When Michael Hart wrote his book, The 100, A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons In History, President Kennedy made the list, coming in at number 80. The reason? He was primarily responsible for instituting the Apollo Space Program. Hart concluded that: “Space travel will play a far greater role in the future than it has in the past. If so, our descendants will feel that the voyage of Apollo 11, like Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic, was the start of an entire new era in human history.”
The legacy of Armstrong has yet to be written, simply because too few have gleaned the consequences of pioneering the space frontier. Former NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin did, proclaiming what many in the National Space Society now think: “One day, I don’t know when, but one day, there will be more humans living off Earth than on it.”
Armstrong established Tranquility Base, for a few brief moments the first outpost of a nascent, post-terrestrial civilization. To dismiss this as an interesting factoid for your kid’s history book would be a mistake. Mark Hopkins of the National Space Society, the largest grassroots space organization, is infused with optimism for space settlement, noting that: “The vast amount of material resources of the solar system are in space rather than on Earth.” He says that the asteroids alone have enough material to produce space settlements with a combined land surface area that is 1000 times the land surface area of the Earth. These settlements, inspired by the work of Gerard K. O’Neill, would be large, hollow cylinders revolving in space (to induce gravity), which would have interiors covered with soil, lakes, streams, forests, fields, and urban areas. Here you would find “a home that is at least as nice as some of the best places on Earth.” (Ad Astra, Summer, 2009)
Add to this the venues of: more entrepreneurial space stations and hotels in earth orbit; space factories and solar power centers (for microwave transmission); bases and villages on the moon, Mars, and on the moons of the outer planets. Prospects for future mega engineering (aka terraforming) might include making Mars more earthlike.
So one can begin to see the cause and the legacy that Neil Armstrong worked toward most of his life—freedom from the bonds of Earth. Armstrong never overreached for fame and money, and quietly retired to teaching, while occasionally making appearances for the sake of pioneering the space frontier.
I am reminded of him each day I open my closet door, and see on the wall the framed, aging newspaper with the banner headline and photo of man walking on the moon. The best way to honor his memory is to not let his work slip away in vain.
We Americans are too much a part of the Space Age to ever abandon it. It is not for us to sit by as other nations take our place in the high frontier. It is not for us to consign this world of increasing population and diminishing resources to remorse and malaise. Rather it is for us to have a rebirth in manned exploration, and to give life to the vision of the National Commission on Space, whose report a quarter of a century ago declared in no uncertain terms that THE SOLAR SYSTEM IS OUR EXTENDED HOME.
In Neil Armstrong’s memory, and to those willing to follow in his footsteps, let them go up.
Mitchell Gordon is Vice President of NSS PASA, the Philadelphia Area Space Alliance, which recently won the Chapter of the Year Award from the National Space Society. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://pasa01.tripod.com.