The nation lost a true hero when Neil Armstrong passed away on Aug. 25. Armstrong lived a remarkable life. Before becoming the first man to step on the moon, he traveled space on Gemini 8. He also flew numerous combat missions during the Korean War and served as a test pilot on the X-15 rocket plane. Armstrong was in the ranks of a generation of seemingly larger-than-life test pilots and astronauts who continuously risked their lives and pushed the boundaries of what was possible.
What made Armstrong particularly unusual was his modest and even shy personality. While he always remained a staunch supporter of an ambitious human space program, in most cases, he was content to use his influence behind the scenes. The result — few Americans would have recognized Armstrong if they had passed him on the street. This became particularly clear to me several years ago when I had arranged to have lunch with Armstrong in Boston.
He was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a technology conference at a Boston hotel. I waited for Armstrong in the cavernous lobby of the hotel where more than 100 people were milling around. After waiting several minutes, I saw an older gentleman getting off the elevator. He slowly walked across the lobby, strolling through large numbers of people, but not one of them noticed that the first human to step on another world was walking past them — despite the fact that most them knew that he would be speaking later that day.
I respect Armstrong’s desire to have privacy in his life — to refrain from always living in the spotlight — but I also felt a little sad that few people recognized the face of a man who will probably still be a household name in 500 years.
If anything positive can be found in the passing of Neil Armstrong, perhaps it is the fact that everybody now recognizes his face — everybody is now reflecting on his deeds and the deeds of our nation more than 40 years ago.
Although I was born only one year prior to the first moon landing, I have had the pleasure of knowing many people who worked on the Apollo program, from engineers and managers to astronauts. I was particularly happy to get to know Robert C. Seamans Jr. of Beverly, who played a vital management role in the Apollo program and who passed away only a few years ago. As we lose one more of the Apollo team, I fear that the day will come soon where we will no longer have any living spokespeople from Apollo — that there will no longer be a living person who has walked on another world.
This December will mark the 40th anniversary of the day that the United States left the moon for the last time. What a national disgrace it would be if we never return — if we never send astronauts to Mars. The best tribute to Neil Armstrong — to Robert C. Seamans — and to everyone else who worked on the Apollo program is to recommit to a human space flight program that is going somewhere.
The first person to walk on Mars could very well be alive today and may well have been inspired by the life of the first man to walk on the moon. If the United States were to commit sending humans to Mars, that individual could be walking on the surface of Mars by the year 2030. That would be a proper tribute to Neil Armstrong.
Chris Carberry of Beverly is executive director of Explore Mars Inc.