Neil Armstrong: Making a mark on the 1960s
He was the quintessential reluctant American hero – quiet, understated, humble — a team player perfectly positioned at the tip of the spear of America’s space program during the deepest throws of the Cold War. His extraordinary accomplishment – fulfilling President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to the nation “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”…”before this decade is out,” — inspired the nation and the world. It also capped the oft-celebrated anti-establishment flower-power liberal decade of the 1960s with an unsurpassed reinforcement of the virtues of patriotism, technological advancement, conservative values and American exceptionalism.
Neil Armstrong achieved eternal fame in 1969 at age 38 as the first man to walk on the moon, something which will be forever remembered in the annals of human history, not to mention in the formative experience of every baby boomer man, woman and child alive at the time. Throughout his life up to his passing Aug. 25 at age 82 from complications of heart surgery, Armstrong handled that fame with the kind of self-effacing humility that seems so especially quaint by today’s Kardashian-level standards.
For example, there is no telling the magnitude of the offers he turned down over the years to “cash in,” to speak, to endorse, to sign autographs, or to promote himself in any conspicuous manner. Instead, he spent most of his post-astronaut life relatively quietly in and around academia and the aerospace business while graciously accepting a multitude of awards and accolades. He later served ably on the accident investigation boards on the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.
Along the way, he rebuffed offers from both political parties to run for office in his home state of Ohio, largely keeping his political views to himself while eschewing the path trodden by such astronaut colleagues and later Senators as John Glenn of Ohio and Harrison Schmidt of New Mexico. In the 2005 authorized biography by James R. Hansen, it was noted that Armstrong was privately in favor of states’ rights and was opposed to the United States acting as the “world’s policeman.”
But it was a most extraordinary moment for Armstrong in May of 2010 when he was moved to go public in what amounted to a biting critique of the Obama Administration’s space program policy retrenchment culminating in the cancellation of the planned Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and Constellation moon landing program.
In an open letter signed with fellow Apollo astronauts Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, Armstrong called the cancellation “devastating.” “America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space,” he wrote. “If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.”
Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong became an Eagle Scout, and began studying aeronautical engineering before he was called up to serve as a naval aviator where he flew 78 missions during the Korean War. He later earned degrees in Aeronautical and Aerospace Engineering and became one of the nation’s elite test pilots with seven flights in the X-15 rocket plane in the late 50’s reaching the edges of space at top speeds over Mach 5. He joined the nation’s astronaut corps in 1962, part of the second group of nine men selected following the original Mercury 7 named in 1959.
In 1966, Armstrong commanded the two-man Gemini 8 mission, which achieved the first rendezvous and docking maneuver in orbit. The mission was cut short when a malfunctioning thruster rocket on his capsule sent the craft tumbling wildly out of control in a near disaster. In 1968, while testing-flying moon landing maneuvers at a training facility, he safely ejected 0.5 seconds before it would have been too late. In both instances, he was nearly killed, but his ability and coolness under pressure led to his being named to command the Apollo 11 first moon landing mission in July 1969.
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he famously said as he set foot on the lunar surface. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the great transformational decade of 1960’s was winding down. A few days before, a young woman drowned in a car accident off Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, altering the career-path of a famous Democratic senator. A few weeks later, an infamous generational gathering of the formative leftist youth movement occurred amid a drug-infested rock concert on a farm at Woodstock, in upstate New York, presaging some of the largest student anti-war demonstrations ever seen across the country later that fall.
In the end, it was Neil Armstrong erecting the American flag on the lunar surface (not those other events) that truly helped define for so many what an extraordinary decade it had been, in many ways the likes of which have not been seen since.