View 738 Saturday, August 25, 2012
Neil Armstrong, RIP
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr
People said things like that when I was growing up, and all the astronauts knew it in the old days at Edwards. I suppose they still know that poem at the USAF Academy, but perhaps not; but I have heard it recited by X-15 pilots at Pancho’s after a day of miracles, and no one laughed. And I am sure that Neil Armstrong knew it. Test pilots were tough guys with the right stuff, but all of them I knew had a romantic streak.
And of course they all had the right stuff, and they knew it, and they knew that Armstrong had more of it than most. During the Apollo Lander Simulation flight – the trainer was dubbed the flying bedstead with good reason – in Arizona the computers glitched or the gyros tumbled so that the platform tumbled ninety degrees. If Armstrong had ejected with it in that attitude he would not have achieved enough altitude to allow the parachute to open. He kept his nerve and slowly rotated the platform as it fell, and when the angle was right – about 45 degrees I am told, I wasn’t there – ejected. Everything worked and he landed without injury. They’ve calculated that he had about three seconds to spare.
The computers overloaded during the Apollo 11 landings, and Armstrong came through again. This time he had twenty seconds of fuel to spare. The right stuff came through. The Eagle landed as the world watched, and the world would never be the same. Those of us who had a part in that can be sure of that. When I was growing up I knew from the first day I read Willy Ley’s book that I would live to see the first man on the Moon. I had not expected to outlive him, but Mankind’s conquest of space is not over. We’ll be back.
In September, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said that within the decade we would put a man on the moon and bring him home. We would do it because we choose to do it. I was part of the space program and I had my doubts. I kept my reservations secret, but the astronauts never had any. They were sure that America could do it.
We chose to go to the Moon in 1962, and seven years after making the choice we heard “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” With 1962 technology. With primitive computers, unreliable rocket motors, with little understanding of the Lunar surface and less understanding of space weather. What is it that we cannot do now? But we must choose to do it.
From a statement by the Armstrong family:
“While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his
remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people
around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be
willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a
cause greater than themselves.
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple
request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty,
and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon
smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."
There’s a waxing half Moon out there tonight.
Tom Brosz reminds me that I may outlive the last man on the Moon as well as the first. Eugene Cernan, the last man to stand on the Moon, is 78. Younger than me, but not by much.