A Hero’s Passing

Image via Gizmodo.com

Neil Armstrong has died.

We don’t have many heroes in our modern, cynical age. Even fewer gods. In a time where almost any achievement seems open to almost anyone, there are few things that leave us truly awestruck. Truly humbled.

Neil Armstrong was a man who achieved something that most thought impossible (and unfortunately some still do). He stood upon the face of another world. Armstrong was the pinnacle of a truly Herculean endeavour, where thousands of mere mortals worked together to show that even the very heavens were within our grasp. That the celestial bodies our ancestors worshiped could be reached out to and touched.

The first man to set foot on another world.

Armstrong, with his compatriots Aldrin and Collins, returned to earth as heroes. To worldwide adulation and acclaim. We would expect an ordinary human to crumble under the pressure, or be revealed as somehow fragile and deficient. It was Armstrong’s genius that he became a cypher – he retreated from the public eye, gave few interviews and fewer appearances – and allowed us to see him as a living monument to human achievement.

Neil Armstrong died today at 82 years of age. A true hero, in the homeric sense of the word. And the world is poorer for his passing.

In the late 60s and early 70s, 12 men walked on the moon. There are now only 8 of them left among us.

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Moon

Moon2

40 years ago this week, men walked on the surface of another world for the first time. You may have heard about it. It’s been in the news a bit.

A friend Facebooked this morning: “L doesn’t get all the fuss about the moon landings, am I missing something?

Yes. Yes, you’re missing something.

The moon landings are, in all likelihood, the greatest single achievement of mankind, to date. We’ve done some pretty amazing things as a species: we have invented tools and used our ingenuity and resourcefulness to successfully colonise just about every corner of the Earth, living in conditions way beyond what we naturally find habitable. We have discovered means of communication that enable the interchange of knowledge and ideas, the recording and passing on of the discoveries of individuals and nations. We have found ways to harness the natural forces of the world, ‘tame’ the wind and the waves, and use them to our benefit. We have discovered the electron and made it our slave. We have slowly pulled ourselves from subsistence to an abundance of wealth, meaning that to those living in the West today, starvation and destitution are alien concepts.

All of those achievements and more are amazing, and a testament to the amazing human capacities of creativity and resourcefulness. But they all pale, if not to insignificance then at least in inferiority, before the events of 40 years ago.

For those of us who grew up post 1969, it is perhaps easy to dismiss the achievement, to misunderstand the immense mountain that had to be climbed to achieve the moon landings. It was done in the 60’s, when we didn’t have personal computers, or the internet, or mobile phones, or any of the amazing technological advances that we now take for granted. So, surely it can’t have been that big a deal, right? Wrong.

Wonderful quote from the BBC’s Evan Davis:

If the journey to the moon is equivalent to the distance from London to New York, going to the ISS is like a voyage from Westminster to Chelsea. It is a thousandth of the number of kilometres.

That journey to the International Space Station is the most difficult technical achievement we get up to these days, and it’s not one to be dismissed. The Space Shuttle is an amazing piece of kit, costs millions to launch, and thousands of people to run. Y’see, it’s a big deal, climbing out of the gravity well; it takes a phenomenal amount of effort. But, compared to the journey to the moon, it’s small fry.

By sheer force of will, the determination of thousands of individuals, and a cost of 4.5% of America’s GDP for ten years, mankind broke free of the confines of our world, and sent twelve men to walk upon the surface of another. Human beings existed in an environment (if it can be called that) that is entirely hostile to them. They looked back down on us, and saw the earth as it was, and is: a single, small world, alone in the vast darkness of space.

Earthrise

Earthrise

Before Apollo, the understanding of us as a single world, all of us ‘in it together’, was alien to almost everyone. The idea of a single human race, that transcends national boundaries and political ideologies. The foundations of the environmental movement. In terms of popular consciousness, these were birthed by the space race; by the world seeing pictures of ourself, smaller than a thumbprint, from the horizon of a different world.

This isn’t my most coherent post ever, and I apologise. I don’t have the hours to research the technological marvel that Apollo was, nor do I have the words to fittingly describe the wonder. So, along with the images here, I’m going to leave you with a grainy bit of footage, broadcast live from a spacecraft orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. Try and imagine what it was like, to hear this, from the voices of three men who had just travelled 1000 times further than any other men before them. The first people to escape the gravitational pull of our own world, and see with their own eyes the surface of another.