Requiem For An American Hero

A Year-End Farewell To Neil Armstrong

Posted: December 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, 27 summers after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. He was smitten after his own first flight at age 6.

Nothing ever interested him as much as flying. Neil built uncounted model airplanes as a boy, testing some in a homemade wind tunnel. He earned his pilot’s license when he was 15, flying alone in the skies of Ohio well before he could drive.

Neil’s college years at Purdue were interrupted by the Korean War, where he served in the Navy’s first jet fighter squadron. Neil flew 78 combat missions, frequently facing hostile fire. Many of his brother-pilots lost their lives during Neil’s tour, including his good friend, Leonard Cheshire.

After the war, Neil married Janet Shearon and found his calling as a test pilot. He tested the newest aircraft of the age, including the X-15, which he piloted to the edge of space. He and Janet had three children, including a daughter, Karen, who died of an inoperable brain tumor when she was only 2. He bore privately the grief of this shattering loss.

Neil was selected to the second group of NASA astronauts in 1962. He was a natural choice to command Apollo 11, the first attempt to land men on the moon. Neil possessed innate courage, a necessity given the perils and complexities of the mission’s daunting flight plan.

Neil, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins performed flawlessly. Not so their machines. During the final descent to the lunar surface, the lander’s primitive computer was guiding it into a crater strewn with massive boulders.

Neil instinctively took manual control, flew to a level site and touched down with just 17 seconds of fuel remaining. He later downplayed his masterful landing, quipping that when a fuel gauge reads empty, “We all know there’s a gallon or two in the tank.”

Centuries hence, humans will still marvel at the miracle of July 20, 1969, when Neil stepped off the Eagle, planted his left boot on lunar soil and uttered the poetic words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth was a technological feat of unparalleled magnitude, requiring the work of 400,000 Americans.

American life was far from perfect when President Kennedy charted the course. Kennedy summoned the nation’s best, not with promises of ease, but with pledges of difficulty:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things — not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win.”

After Apollo 11, Neil shunned the trappings of celebrity and shouldered the burden of his unwanted fame with dignity, struggling not to be defined by his lead role in this singularly defining event. He always credited others for his achievement. Still, Neil Armstrong will forever be without peer — the first man to walk on the moon.

Neil afforded us a new perspective of Earth and a distant glimpse into our destiny.

He was one of only 24 humans to see Earth from the vantage of deep space. It was a profoundly transcendent experience. He reflected, “When you are looking at the Earth from the lunar distance, its atmosphere is just unobservable. …  That should impress everyone. The atmosphere of the Earth is a small and valuable resource.”

Neil’s life teaches that unimaginable achievements are possible when we chart difficult courses and work together to accomplish them.

Kennedy insisted that his generation of Americans, “does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it.” Neil Armstrong, having led his generation’s greatest exploration, called upon ours to seek new heights.

We could do no greater honor to his legacy than to answer his call. 

Daniel L. Fitch lives in Harrisonburg


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