The moon landings were the kind of defiant audacity that should knock you on your ass just for the fact that we attempted them in the first place. Consider: Apollo 1 failed in the worst way possible, burning up on the launchpad and killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. This is the kind of tragedy that quails our courage and consigns good ideas to that part of the map marked “here be dragons”, but the spirit of the time would not allow it to close off our hearts to the moon. Flight director Gene Kranz said in a speech to Mission Control that NASA’s response to the accident was to embody the words Tough and Competent — that is, accountable and thorough in their approach to every subsequent mission. It was an engineer’s credo.
Neil Armstrong was an engineer — he would, in his later life, teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati — and a test pilot. This put him in a unique position of being able to figure out exactly why the thing he had been flying had tried to kill him. Engines would explode, or stop working, or work a bit too well, and Armstrong would calmly work the problem until he fixed it or the problem became unworkable. They chose him to fly all kinds of planes with “X” in their designation (for “experimental”), planes which seemed to rattle to pieces from the sheer excitement of what they were designed to do. Armstrong flew the X-15, the fastest manned aircraft ever built. On one of his flights, an error in his descent caused him to overshoot the airfield at 2,000 miles an hour — no big deal for Armstrong, who calmly turned his death rocket around and threaded his way between the trees to safety. Neil Armstrong flew planes at 4,000 miles an hour, at 200,000 feet, big round number planes that spoke of a big brave future.
We make drones, now. They have pilots, but those pilots sit in a computer bay thousands of miles away, watching through cameras. If the connection is broken, the drones simply fly in circles, lazily waiting for orders. They have names like Predator and Reaper and Switchblade. Neil Armstrong flew craft called Shooting Star and Starfighter and Gemini.
The science-hero was a staple of early pulp novels — heroes like Indiana Jones or Doc Brass who used their educations as often as their fists*. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the moon landing into their own pulp novel — they very slightly overshot their original landing area, which would have sent them into a touchdown zone filled with boulders and assorted debris. Armstrong made a call to land the module manually, which he did with Aldrin making speed and fuel calculations in his head. Two men, all alone in a rocket ship, testing their knowledge and nerve against the world’s most stressful math problem. You can try a simulation of it here. It’s not easy.
*Aldrin once punched out a moon landing conspiracy theorist. I hope he lives forever.
Armstrong and Aldrin left behind several things when they blasted off the surface of the moon, back to a rendezvous with Michael Collins in the Command Module. One of those things was an Apollo 1 mission patch, emblazoned with Grissom, White, and Chaffee’s names. We responded to death with bravery and science and no small amount of sentiment.
Neil Armstrong is dead, after accomplishing everything a man could dream to accomplish. Our space program, in a world where an Xbox carries more processing power than Mission Control’s best computers, is reduced to probes and drones and piggybacking off Russian rockets. We owe it to him and Aldrin and the astronauts of Apollo 1 much more than that. Our tragedies should always be followed by triumph. We owe them the moon, again. We owe them Mars. We owe them the solar system and beyond. We owe them the universe.