The passing of Neil Armstrong feels like something stronger. Like the death of an era. Like the passing of a time when we yearned for the stars with a child-like zeal and passion that somehow escapes us now. Maybe because one of my earliest memories is gathering with my family around a giant, cabinet sized TV when I was just a four year old girl, watching Neil Armstrong step forward for all mankind. Maybe because I carried that memory of “eagles landing on the moon” forward through my childhood, inspiring me (along with many other accomplishments of the space program, including my own father working on the Saturn V’s engines) to reach for the stars myself and apply for the astronaut program.
While the history of the space program feels personal to me, I believe the early years of the space program were also the childhood of our country’s love of science. We, as a nation, were entranced by the things that science could do, the wondrous possibilities and promises that it held for us. A president challenged us to go to the Moon, and like children, we believed that we could. And so we did. This is the great capacity of children – to believe, to try, to strive without holding back, all because someone we love told us that we could do anything we set our minds to.
Then we grew up.
As a nation, we lost Challenger and Columbia. We grieved and we doubted and we pulled back from the wondrous possibilities of space. When the last Shuttle flight landed, there was much tribute given to a Space Program that had been neglected in the media for years. I could barely watch it. I told my mom at the time, that it felt like a funeral. Something great had died because we couldn’t quite figure out how to save it. With Neil Armstrong’s passing, I feel we’ve finally been given the chance to openly mourn what we’ve lost. Which is why I’m crying as I type this.
Our nation’s romance with technology and science grew up and became cynical and afraid. And while we embraced the race forward with computers and iPhones, we shrank from the larger ambitions that we once yearned for. We have Curiosity, but no ambition. We have long had the ability to put a rover on Mars, lacking only the will to do it. Because space exploration isn’t powered by rocket motors or liquid oxygen. It is fueled by the desire to go there. To explore. To, yes, go where no man has gone before. Even that has become a relic left over from my childhood.
Now, ambition lives on in the private sector. Companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace will takes us to the moon again, and beyond. In a way, Space will become the Wild West that my childhood science fiction novels always imagined it would be, where our pioneering leaders will be the individuals who stamp a railroad to the stars, allowing humanity to follow.
So, I’ll grieve today. I’ll mourn the passing of a great man and a national ambition. But I won’t lose hope for the future of space exploration. Because if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the power of individuals to push forward and change the world. We may have grown up, but some of us haven’t lost that drive, and as long as there are people like Elon Musk and Robert T. Bigelow, we will be a space-faring people one day. While Armstrong was critical of the private space program, I understand why: he wanted to recapture the national ambition to go to space, just as I did. But Elon is the kind of person that will carry us forward now, inspired by what pioneers like Armstrong achieved. “Those guys (Armstrong and Cernan) are heroes of mine,” said Musk.
Me too, Elon.
RIP Neil Armstrong.