08/31/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Neil Armstrong and the Space Generation

Co-written with Douglas Dechow

In Southern California, August 25, 2012, is a beautiful Saturday, all blue sky, warm sunshine, and cool breeze. The semester will begin on Monday, and we are at home revising a book proposal. Neil Armstrong, the first human being to stand on the Moon, is eighty-two years old and living in Cincinnati. Today, Armstrong dies. The first era of U.S. manned spaceflight ends, and we are the adults of this nation now. Armstrong and eleven other men visited the Moon, but those of us who were watching, as young as we might have been then, are the space generation.

2012-08-31-armstrong.jpg The time that has elapsed between the moment Armstrong left humanity's first lunar footprints, permanently enshrined in the Moon's soil, not subject to wind or rain, to the day of his death spans our conscious lives. Our first memories of life include that of Armstrong's bulky white form, gracelessly clambering down the lunar module's ladder leg. As toddlers, we may not have known what the meaning of that moment was, but even young children sense meaning, recognize when a thing or event has meaning.

Armstrong had been just thirty-eight years old when he flew on Apollo 11. We are in our mid-forties ourselves now. We're past middle age. It's time we grow up--or admit that we've grown up. Just as we stood on the shoulders of the previous generation, we must ensure that our shoulders are strong enough to support those will follow us.

Earlier this month, Armstrong celebrated his birthday, then had heart bypass surgery. His arteries were clogged, not an unusual occurrence, not something that made the headlines. He'd shied away from the limelight after the initial hoopla over the Moon landing, so news of his health wasn't something we'd seen. On August 25, the reports on this sunny Saturday are that his recovery appeared to be going well but that complications arose. Complications sound unusual but are not. Complications can even happen to the first person to walk on the Moon. Life is full of complications.

The news stories, public condolences, and commemorations begin to pile up quickly. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden makes a statement:

"As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind's first small step on a world beyond our own. Besides being one of America's greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all. When President Kennedy challenged the nation to send a human to the moon, Neil Armstrong accepted without reservation."

Bob Cabana, the Director of Kennedy Space Center, says, "Neil Armstrong was a true American hero, and one of the nicest gentlemen around. He was the epitome of what an engineering test pilot should be, and a role model for anyone who aspired to be an astronaut."

2012-08-31-338750main_11226.jpg Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson points to the grand nature of Armstrong's accomplishment, saying, "No other act of human exploration ever laid a plaque saying, 'We came in peace for all mankind.'"

Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, who orbited the Moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked upon its surface, says simply of Armstrong, "He was the best, and I will miss him terribly."

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, is ninety-one years old, going strong when we interviewed him this past spring. Glenn, not usually envious of others, what with his own successes in space and in politics, once admitted that Armstrong was the one person he envied. Of the twelve men who walked on the Moon, four--Armstrong, Pete Conrad, James Irwin, and Alan Shepherd--are now dead. The oldest living Moon-walker is Aldrin, born in 1930, and the youngest is Charlie Duke, born in 1935.

These men were chosen, in part, for their general health and fitness. We hope all the rest live another twenty years. We'd very much like to have another good conversation with Charlie Duke when he's ninety-seven, and we see no reason why that can't happen. Someday, we'd very much like to meet Michael Collins, one of those few men who circled the Moon all alone. But the Apollo astronauts will not live forever. They made history; we were born into the history they were making. We grew up in the Space Age that they forged for us.

Armstrong knew that he was a "nerdy engineer" who came of age at just the right time. Had he been born ten years earlier or later, he would not have walked on any extraterrestrial body other than Earth; he probably wouldn't have had an opportunity to become an astronaut at all. Had it not been him on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, it would have been someone else. But it wasn't someone else. We watched Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon. As he put it, "Looking back, we were really very privileged to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself and what he might become and where he might go."

Upon hearing of his death, we wonder how exactly we look at ourselves now, who we might become tomorrow, and where we might go. We are Generation Space, born into Apollo, and we--individually and collectively--must make the most of the thin slice of history in which we now live as adults.