When I heard Neil Armstrong had died, I could not look up at the moon or even see the stars; it was a bright, sunny day, but I thought about him and the impact he had made on me and so many other kids and grown-ups. An estimated 600 million earthlings watched him take his first step on the moon, and I was one of those souls on this planet who saw it live and will never forget that moment in history.
We were away on vacation in a hotel room. I was a kid and asked my Dad to wake me up when it was going to happen. There was just a small black and white TV screwed into the top of the dresser, but it would have to do. When dad woke me up, I sat up and remember seeing a grainy image of Armstrong, hovering a bit on the ladder of the Lunar Module as he prepared to be the first human being to step onto another world. He then uttered his now iconic line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” What a giant leap it was then, as that indelible footprint in the lunar surface is there forever and remains inexorably in our minds.
In 1969 I had a fascination with space. TV shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space had stoked my imagination. I had also been a fan of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers series, and wasn’t Superman the ultimate space saga, an alien who came to this world and became one of us but was oh so much more too? By the time Apollo 11 lifted off, I had every reason to be excited about it. In my young mind I believed more than anything that we would soon be zooming off to these foreign planets I imagined, with the array of aliens both good and bad to encounter.
Reality eventually catches up to all of us, and even to NASA and the whole quest for space travel. While Armstrong was a hero in every sense of the word, there seemed to be a rapid descent for the voyages to the moon, with the Apollo 13 near-disaster no doubt contributing to that. Trips to the moon ended in the early 1970s, and then the Space Shuttle became the focus, with the goal to build a space station. All of these things took a long, long time, and getting to Mars or anywhere else seemed less and less likely.
Now we await what will be the next giant leap, but no one can ever underestimate the power of Armstrong’s moment in history. His foot touching the dusty surface of the moon was perhaps the biggest step ever taken by a human being. It was more significant than Columbus stepping off his ship in a “new world,” more meaningful than any footfall by any other explorer, because it meant to everyone watching that we were not bound to this world. We were able to find a way to leave this planet, and our statement to whomever was watching (whether it was one of the 600 million on this planet or extra-terrestials viewing it across the cosmos) was this: “We can do it, and we are going to do it again.”
Great moments and great men are remembered fondly. For me 1969 was the kind of year a New York kid could only dream about. The Mets, Jets, and Knicks won championships on the earthly plane, and Neil Armstrong hit his shot heard ’round the world (and the galaxy?) on the moon. After that moment the moon was not just a circle in the sky, it was a tangible place, and the thought of that stiff flag on the windless terrain forevermore always sent a shiver through me. It was not just the moon anymore; it was our moon. No flag placed on foreign soil ever meant so much to so many, for Armstrong did not claim the moon for America but for the entire human race.
So many will mourn Armstrong, but his family has asked that when we look up at the moon, we should think of him and wink. That’s the least any of us could do for this man, but in truth he is now free to visit the moon as often as he likes. Perhaps he will trace his own footprints, gaze at what remains of the fragile lunar module in the windless silence, and salute the still flag. He and his giant leap, a bold, brave, and unforgettable footstep, now transcend time and space for all eternity.
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