Sitting here in a hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky, I find it is hard to get my thoughts together. I was at the State Fair yesterday afternoon, when one of my staff sent me a text saying that Neil Armstrong had died. The rest of the day, and maybe even the rest of my life, changed. The tears began to flow.
Those of us in the planetarium field knew him personally, even though most of us never met him. But weekly, and sometimes daily, we spoke about the Moon landings, and Neil Armstrong. Even those planetarians who were not born until after the Apollo 11 mission still knew him. But for those of us old timers, who were born before the Mercury missions lifted off, we grew up with the space program and all the Astronauts that made history.
I always felt somewhat sad that most of the teachers over the years to whom I taught astronomy never saw the Moon landing when it happened. They were all in their mid twenties or so, and to them, Neil Armstrong was just a page in a history book, like Christopher Columbus and George Washington. But to me, he was real and a “personal friend,” even though I never met the man.
The public and all of us in the planetarium field “elevated” him to hero status. Neil never looked at himself that way. He was always the first to say that landing on the Moon was done by over 500,000 people and that the credit went to all of them and not him.
Yesterday at the Kentucky State Fair, there was an exhibition of things made with balloons – the Wright Flyer, Curiosity, the Space Shuttle, and a few other objects related to aviation.
But the one that caught my eye was the Lunar Lander and Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder. A few minutes later, I was informed that Neil Armstrong had died.
Most people at the fair didn’t know, and the few people that I told seemed to be shocked.
We all get old and die; not a pleasant thought, but I think that Neil seemed to be immortal, kind of like a super hero, and I thought he would be here forever. Well, he can be. It is up to us planetarians to keep his memory alive in our teachings. We can never let the generations of students and teachers who come to our domes forget the mission of Apollo 11 and how it changed the World forever.
I remember it like it was yesterday: July 20th, 1969. I was 14 at the time, sitting in front of the TV set, with my Revell Saturn V rocket and LM, “acting out” everything that was happening on the screen. Then there was Walter Cronkite saying: “Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the Moon.” Then the words that we all remember from Neil: “That’s one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind.”
The world and my life was changed forever. Although since the age of five, I wanted to work in the planetarium field, seeing Armstrong on the Moon solidified that quest for the career that I have had for the past four decades. And today, upon hearing about the passing of this true American Hero, the world and my life has been changed again.
Like Tom Hanks said in the movie Apollo 13: “From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon.” And now unfortunately, from now on we live in a world, where the first man on the Moon is no longer with us.
Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong.