Neil Armstrong, in memoriam

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

I wrote the following post for a now defunct website following Neil Armstrong’s death seven years ago at the age of 82. I repost it here, lightly emended, for the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon tomorrow. —JMP

I had a poster on the wall beside my bunkbed showing the planets—Pluto included, back then—in their orbits around the sun. I had more toy space shuttles than I could keep track of, and enough booster rockets and rust-orange external tanks to launch all of them into orbit above our trampoline. I went to Space Camp, ate dehydrated ice cream in vacuum-sealed packaging, and wore my blue NASA jumpsuit and pilot wings to school. I wanted to be an astronaut.

And when I thought of “astronaut,” I thought of him.

Neil Armstrong died this weekend at the age of 82, just over 43 years after taking man’s first steps on the moon. It was that moment and those words—broadcast worldwide on television—that cemented him forever as The Astronaut.

But he wasn’t just an astronaut. He was a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday when he landed the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, and the vast majority of those previous years he had spent behind the stick in hundreds of planes. He learned to fly before he got his driver’s license and, after joining the Navy, became a test pilot. As the horrific opening chapter of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff makes clear, testing aircraft was one of the most hazardous and demanding jobs in the US military. Equipment malfunction or failure was part of the job, and pilot error, even among the coolest, most daring pilots in the country, could kill a man even when everything else went right.

And Armstrong was one of the coolest and most collected of those pilots. Though he declined to be interviewed for the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, in the film his fellow Apollo astronauts speak of his bravery and cool. Archival test footage—which shows Armstrong ejecting from a flaming military prototype just above the ground, seconds before the vehicle crashes and explodes—amply back up his reputation for courage.

He was born to do his work. “Pilots take no special joy in walking,” he wrote, “pilots like flying.” And it was as a pilot that he approached the crowning moment of his career and of the space program. “The exciting part for me, as a pilot, was the landing on the moon. . . . Walking on the lunar surface was very interesting, but it was something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable. So the feeling of elation accompanied the landing rather than the walking.”

He returned home a hero, and remained a hero the rest of his life. He retired from NASA and worked as an educator, teaching aerospace engineering and devoting himself just as wholly to that as he had to his career in the Navy and the space program. “I am, and ever will be,” he said, “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”

He avoided the limelight, increasingly so as the years went by, declining interviews and attention from the media. He even stopped giving out autographs after learning that scalpers were hawking his signature for exorbitant amounts of money.

As a child, I didn’t know much of that and wouldn’t have understood if I had. I was obsessed with Armstrong for strictly one mission and one moment and wanted to emulate him, though I never saw him on TV. I had to content myself with photos in my many books about space and NASA, and the black and white footage I saw when Apollo 11 was commemorated every year. I think that added to his legend for me—he was the man who walked on the moon, the first to achieve all my astronaut dreams, and then he disappeared.

Now I understand, and my childlike worship has matured into real admiration as a result—Armstrong was humble.

As far back as Cicero and Dante, writers have imagined the awe that must come with seeing Earth for what it is, in the context of all creation. How would man, such a tiny creature, feel about himself upon seeing that his home and all he knows and loves is hardly bigger than himself against the backdrop of the universe? For a wise man, the experience should be humbling.

Neil Armstrong knew that humility. He experienced what the ancients could only imagine. Standing on the surface of the moon in 1969, the aviator, astronaut, engineer, and representative of all mankind to outer space looked up at home. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant,” he said. “I felt very, very small.”

Beyond his courage, his cool, and his willingness to risk all in the pursuit of his mission, that humility is why Armstrong is a hero—and why he will remain one.

Waking into the world

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About a week ago, Alan Jacobs posted a short bit of one of his favorite Auden poems on his blog. I enjoy but am no great fan of Auden and began to skim, but then stopped short when Jacobs invoked Beowulf. It seems that in his poem “Horae Canonicae,” Auden borrowed from Beowulf what struck me as a beautiful image.

Here’s the relevant passage—some genealogical framing from near the beginning of the poem—in the translation of Beowulf I happen to be reading right now, that of R.M. Liuzza:

Four children, all counted up,
were born to that bold leader of hosts.

Liuzza’s translation is good—I want to emphasize that—but here it translates the meaning rather than the literal words of the text. Here’s the same passage in the original Old English:

ðæm feower bearn     forðgerimed
in worold wocon     weoroda ræswan

And to give my own roughly literal version:

to him four children counted forth
woke into the world…

Waking into the world.

Today is my birthday, the day I woke into the world thirty-five years ago (an age with plenty of its own significance). But that’s not what was on my mind when I ran across this beautiful phrase. Rather, a few days earlier, my wife and I had welcomed our third child, a healthy baby boy, our second son, into the world. That has a way of preoccupying you.

So after spending a few days in the hospital, attending the birth and holding this stunned, fearful, hungry, and not a little drowsy new life in my arms, waking into the world seemed exactly right. Who isn’t a little shocked to wake up, who doesn’t expect breakfast, and who doesn’t carry sleep with them like the warmth of their blankets for a little while after rising? Waking into the world is a metaphor that strikes closer to the truth than plain English, the way all good poetry does.

While being born has its own poetic weight—each and every one of us is carried into life, just as each of us will be carried out—I think waking gets at what makes being born such a shock and delight. Beyond the fun, simple parallels, when we wake we come slowly or instantly into a world we were totally unaware of a moment before. It went on without us—had been going on for some time—with its own cast of characters and interests. We aren’t necessary to its existence and continuation. And so waking up and joining it is a gift.

Because I can’t keep him out of this blog for long, here’s a favorite bit from Chesterton, in Heretics, on the same point:

The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made.

None of us has to wake into the world—indeed many never even get the chance. But my growing awareness of the gratuitousness of life, how totally unnecessary it all is, has made me more and more grateful to have received such a gift as waking. I don’t know how much time I have left in this world—I pray it’s many years, of course—but however long it is, I’m thankful for the grace of waking into it, and of being able to give that gift to my children.

Thanks to all who have passed along birthday wishes and greetings, and especially those who have helped us welcome our son. God bless, and thanks as always for reading.