No decade in most of our lifetimes presented the highs and lows that the 1960s did. And no point was higher – literally or figuratively – than Neil Armstrong’s first footstep on the moon.
It’s difficult to explain to kids today how big an accomplishment that was. Through the special-effects of Hollywood, today’s youth are used to seeing intergalactic travel. The moon? Please. It’s right there, and there’re no cool aliens to interact with.
But this is real life, and real life can be awfully fragile. Space travel is as dangerous as it gets. Intrepid pioneers have died sometimes during mere launches, trying to be among the chosen few to have “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” Between us and the moon are some quarter-million miles of desolate, cold, inhospitable space. President Kennedy’s visionary exhortation “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” was accomplished by July 1969 without special effects. The peril was unimaginable.
The feat, therefore, is indescribable.
The humble, soft-spoken Armstrong tried to describe it as simply and eloquently as he could: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
The moon landing on July 20, 1969, was perhaps the first event in history to have been shared by all humanity. It was, indeed, a giant leap for mankind. But the conquest was especially sweet for the United States of America, which came late to the Space Race with the Soviet Union but crossed the lunar finish line first.
It was just the morale boost the bruised American psyche – and the free world – needed.
Man’s first step on the moon, besides being a giant leap, is also a reminder of his infinitesimal place in the universe – and how small that giant leap really is. Andromeda, the nearest spiral galaxy to ours, is 2.5 million light years away. Think about that: Even at the speed of light, it would take 2.5 million years to get there. And consider its size: Andromeda has some 1 trillion stars alone. Our own Milky Way even has as many as 400 billion “suns.”
And there are millions of galaxies.
But as the proverb goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Through talent, training, smarts and demeanor, Neil Armstrong just happened to be the man who began that journey for the rest of us.
The humility and perspective he exhibited in his post-Apollo years, up to his death Saturday at 82, seems to cry out that he was the perfect choice to carry our flag on that first leg of a very long expedition.