Armstrong Wasn't Columbus

08/29/2012 01:49 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2012

Neil Armstrong was no Christopher Columbus.

In most respects, he was better. Unlike the famous fifteenth century seafarer, Armstrong knew where he landed. He also spent his time in public service, not in jail, and his passing was marked by world-wide encomiums. He ended his days as a celebrated explorer rather than a royal inconvenience.

Exploration was once a dirty, nasty and dangerous business. Consider some of Columbus' contemporaries, headliners in the early years of the Age of Discovery. Ferdinand Magellan's globe-girdling venture killed a large number of people, including the bulk of his crew and countless natives who got in the way. Magellan himself was cut down in an ill-conceived battle he instigated with a native chief in the Philippines. One, and only one of his ships hobbled back to Spain.

Then there was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who in 1513 became the first European to see the Pacific from its eastern shores. Balboa was more efficient at exterminating Panamanian natives than your average tropical disease. In the end, he was decapitated by axe for insubordination.

As contemporary explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison noted to Nick Smith, a journalist, these early probers of the unknown were "the most ghastly people who ever lived. They were as cruel, vicious, and greedy as you could get."

Exploration's still dangerous, but not so dirty and nasty. In the last 250 years, it has attracted a better class of people, such as the enlightened Captain James Cook, who probed the Pacific for new islands, or the gentlemanly explorers who raced to be first at the South Pole.

Neil Armstrong was cut from this better cloth, and indeed, the best cloth. His fellow astronauts on Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, are frequently in the public eye. Armstrong, in contrast, was famously private -- an archetype of the American hero. He did his job with competence, and with stunning calm.

Five hundred years from now, few will know that. But just as every child today has heard of Columbus, their descendants a half-millennium from now will have heard of Armstrong, a point recently made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

What our descendants won't recall is the visceral experience of stepping onto a new world for the first time. Five centuries from now -- barring unimaginable catastrophe -- the moon will be developed real estate. There's economic incentive to exploit the moon -- the helium-3 will be useful in powering fusion reactors, and the rare earth elements could supplant the limited terrestrial supply of these materials. The moon also offers special opportunities for science. Optical astronomers will revel in a place where the sky is always dark and the troubling atmosphere non-existent. Radio astronomers can take refuge on the moon's back side -- a locale that's permanently shielded from all the interfering radio chatter of Earth.

These are only the simplest and most obvious of future lunar activities. We can no better imagine what will be happening on the moon 500 years from now than Columbus could imagine contemporary Manhattan. Except to say that it will be a place familiar to billions of people.

But it wasn't familiar to anyone until Neil Armstrong went there. When he gingerly stepped down the Lunar Module's ladder and dropped onto the moon's powdered, pulverized surface, he beheld a landscape that no one had ever seen. A landscape worse than dead, for it was never alive. The science-fiction films had been wrong: there were no rough-hewn mountains sitting in the stark glare of a brittle sun. Instead, the mountains were heaving mounds, unsculpted by weather, their flanks beaten into gentle shape by four billion years of meteor impacts, and carpeted with the impactors' gritty remains.

It was a place where the quiet was complete, and where nothing ever changed.

Except that on that day, July 20, 1969, for the first time in billions of years, something did change. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin dropped out of the sky, and made their marks on an untouched panorama.

A tree fell in the forest, but this time everyone heard it.