08/29/2012 12:19 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

On Armstrong

Let's say we could miraculously go way back into deep time and find a dignified tribe of early-human hunter-gatherers clustered around a central fire under East African moonlight. And let's say we could engage them in conversation, with the goal of informing them of a single outstanding fact: that millennia hence, three of their distant descendants would rise on a column of flame from the Earth and travel to the surface of the very moon lighting the Great Rift Valley all around. And land there. And walk there.

Let's say this was possible, and they in turn believed it would one day occur. When told his name, wouldn't they nod and grin, their teeth glinting in the firelight? Would they not recognize the justice of it, of the name of the first voyager to set foot on the moon?


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By the same token, imagine our impossibly networked, super-sophisticated descendants, representatives of a human race as far into the future as we are from those early hominids. If we could somehow ask them, through the eons, what they thought about that epochal, millennia-previous event, that ultra-hazardous first landing by human beings on the Earth's only natural satellite, might they not come to a similar conclusion?

Wouldn't they, in other words, also understand the name of the First Man, the taker of Small Steps and maker of Giant Leaps, to be a worthy tribal appellation? Something awarded, after the fact, to a kind of heroic oarsman, one capable of steering across the gulf between worlds, and landing safely on luna firma, and returning unscathed? Wouldn't they, in effect, implicitly position our civilization by that name, as one belonging to a primitive, tribal, albeit vigorously innovative time, thereby confirming, come to think of it, their membership in the same lineage as our East African ancestors?


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As it happens, Armstrong's death came at the end of a week when an only marginally less famous 21st-century human of the same name also earned front-page coverage by finally dropping his formal objections to the charge that his victories had been won through a systematic program of drug use. Lance Armstrong's ex-teammates and ex-friends were said to be lining up to testify against him, to charge that he had doped his way to seven Tour de France victories.

Contrast that with the loyalty shown to Neil Armstrong by his colleagues, the lack of even the slightest suggestion that his achievements had been due to anything other than grace under pressure, hard work, and the correct decision by those in charge that he be the one chosen to make Earth's initial footprint on another celestial sphere.

By all accounts his subsequent modesty came in part from a gnawing sense of guilt that he was receiving the credit due to tens of thousands of scientists and engineers who had labored for a decade to make his achievement possible. His avoidance of the spotlight, in other words, was a tribute to their efforts, and they returned his respect in kind.

Because, of course, they saw clearly that he did the exact opposite of what might have been expected: He conspicuously failed to cash in on his fame. Unlike his subordinate Buzz Aldrin, who peddles his signature online, or even his predecessor John Glenn, who wasn't even the second man to orbit the Earth but rather the third, and who converted this into a senatorial career, Armstrong refused to trade fame for money or other forms of fortune.

He clearly considered himself fortunate enough already: He'd been chosen.

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In the full sweep of human history there are names that will live as long as records are kept, and others that may or may not, and still others that receive footnotes at best, deservedly or not. Most don't have the slightest chance, of course -- though even the most insignificant life sends tiny ripples across history, simply by virtue of having existed.

Neil Armstrong didn't peddle his signature. His fame was the result of a decision by a soon-to-be-assassinated president to show American power through peaceful competition in space, with the net result being that the most astonishing achievement since records were first impressed into wet clay was achieved at a kind of frothing peak of decadal discord, in the last months of the 1960s.

The Eagle has landed. It was a kind of redemption.

He didn't peddle it, but he wasn't sparing with it, either, when giving praise or thanks. I saw it twice: in an inscription on a book given to Arthur C. Clarke ("For Arthur, who envisioned the details of lunar flying long before I did"), and at the bottom of a letter sent to the editor-in-chief of a publishing house that I work with, one that had produced an illustrated volume of NASA history.

It's a name that will of course live as long as the human race condescends to maintain its own history. Armstrong had few pretensions; he saw himself as a damned fine test pilot, of course, and was proud of his role in aviation history. He wasn't "the noblest man that ever lived in the tides of time," but if history gave him the singular role of unitary face and name representing the efforts of thousands of nameless engineers and scientists who built and launched those fuming, roaring black-and-white obelisks towards the stars, he earned it twofold.

The first way, of course, was with his flawless handling of a spindly tinfoil spacecraft filled with the squawking warning voices of an overloaded computer, the calmer reminders by his colleague Aldrin that fuel was running low, and the disembodied, prodding, coded anxiety of Mission Control in distant Houston.

And the second was by the rare flawlessness of his conduct in the five decades since. Lift a gourd, lift a glass, lift a force-field flute of post-digital mead, in honor of the man: Arm-Strong. Nomen est omen.