Updated: Jul 15, 2019
This past weekend, Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on a world other than Earth, passed away at age 82. I remember when Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind”. How could I not? I was right there with him, in my living room. I followed the space program avidly as a child. I looked up at the moon on clear nights and boggled that we were going there. Now I look at the moon and boggle that we’re not still there.
I went to the moon with Neil, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins in a space capsule constructed out of dining room chairs I had dragged into the living room and carefully arranged. Unlike their craft, my spaceship could only hold one and I had to remove a chair and wrestle it back into place once I was inside the capsule. I don’t recall any adults protesting about the spaceship in the living room in front of the TV. They could see over it and knew how badly I wanted to go to the moon. They had said on many occasions that I had an over-active imagination, but a man walking on the moon was beyond imagination: as astonishing as it was, it was real. After that, anything one could imagine was surely possible. Man had crossed a vast distance of space and walked on the moon.
I was scared and exhilarated by the Apollo missions. Terrified that something would go wrong, yet believing in a way only a kid can, that it wouldn’t. (I choked up every time I heard “A Space Oddity” and I was scared out of my mind by the Apollo 13 mission.) I watched enthralled not only when Neil walked on the moon, but as a succession of others did too. Is there any kid who didn’t want both the moon and a moon buggy? It used to be that “wanting the moon” or “asking for the moon” meant something impossible or out of reach. Neil Armstrong reached it. And he did it with outstanding skill, nerves of steel, and grace. The whole world was watching.
This was unique: explorers and pioneers up to that time did what they did at a remove from the breathess (less brave or skilled) populace. People would wait weeks, months, or years for some word out of some vast unexplored and often dangerous land that the explorers had reached it, that they were alive and safe. The delay between Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon and me seeing it was a couple of seconds. Neil and Buzz who both landed on the moon (Collins remained in the command ship about 60 miles above them) had traveled further from home than any human being ever. The distance to the moon varies, but even so, it’s roughly 10 times as far as the circumference of the earth at any point, so they traveled ten times further than it was even possible for a human being to travel from point to point anywhere on earth.
I went to the moon in my living room. Exploration would never be the same. And neither would I.
Today was a distant future in 1969. I’m living in that future and it has a lot of technologies and amenities I recognize from Star Trek, and countless other sci-fi shows and movies of my youth, but notably there are no flying cars and there is no moonbase. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon July 20, 1969 I thought the moon would be visited regularly from then on. I couldn’t envision a future in which the moon wasn’t inhabited. I thought people would be living on the moon by now. Here we are, the year 2012, and the moon is only inhabited in fiction. I’m still visiting it in my living room, roaming around a city named for the first man on the moon*, but it’s not real, not like Apollo 11. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “Books are good enough in their own way, but they’re a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”
I wish Neil Armstrong had lived to see mankind inhabiting the moon. Instead, it’s “been there, done that”. This is the only instance of people going to a new land, exploring, liking it, and then leaving, without colonizing. There are no indigenous moon people who we’d be displacing. There was only us and instead of settling this new frontier that Neil and company first explored, we stayed tethered to earth. We (mankind) built not one, but three space stations (Skylab, Mir, ISS), the most recent an international space station which has been continuously inhabited for over a decade. But the traffic is entirely between the earth and the station, none between the station and the moon, or the earth and the moon.
NASA has built a new prototype for a moon buggy, but sends unmanned rovers to Mars instead of sending people to the moon. There’s a lot of good science still to be done on the moon. We don’t know all about it yet because we were there only a short time, a very long time ago when we didn’t have the sophisticated technology we have today.
Neil Armstrong was by all accounts a humble self-effacing man. He might’ve been discomfited to have a moonbase named after him in his lifetime, but he’s left Earth once again exploring the great unknown, “the undiscovered country” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it. Godspeed, Neil Armstrong. Some day I’ll see you on the other side. In the meantime, let’s build a city called Armstrong on the moon. When he stepped onto the surface of the moon, he stepped into mankind’s future. It’s time — past time — for us to follow in those footsteps. His bootprints are still there in the regolith of the moon. Waiting for us.
*Fictional Lunar city I referred to: Armstrong Dome, in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series.