Commentary Magazine


Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Everyone old enough to have witnessed on television the moon landing on July 20, 1969, will never forget it. The next day the New York Times used, I believe for the first time, war type to announce the news. It has used that size type only a few times since (Nixon’s resignation, Clinton’s impeachment, 9/11).

I was 25 that year and watched the landing with my grandfather, who was then 87. Ever the historian, I was deeply aware of the changes he had seen in his lifetime. Born in 1881 into a world of gas light and horses, a world without movies or even amateur still photography, without telephones or phonographs (although both had been invented), it was a world where Chester Arthur was president and Queen Victoria’s reign had twenty years to run. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon had been published only 16 years earlier and its astronauts had used a giant cannon to get to the moon (the g forces would have killed them instantly on take off). The back of the moon was the very epitome of the unknowable.

My grandfather had been 21 when the Wright Brothers first flew (although he wouldn’t have known it as it wasn’t reported in the papers), 45 when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. He was 65 when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, 76 when Sputnik was launched. Now he was sitting in front of a color television (an inconceivable technology in 1881) watching a man climb down a ladder and set foot on the moon, a quarter of a million miles away.

Naturally I wondered what milestones I would have seen by the time I was 87. I’m not there yet, but Voyager, launched in 1976, has now reached the heliopause, the outermost edge of the solar system. Probes have visited every planet and another will reach Pluto (demoted from planethood a few years ago) in 2015. The moons of Saturn and Jupiter—mere dots of light in a telescope when I was growing up—have been observed up close and  Titan, Saturn’s big moon, has been landed on, revealing lakes of liquid methane and a thousand other wonders. Rovers are crisscrossing the surface of Mars, allowing us to be tourists on a planet that many serious people thought inhabited when my grandfather was growing up. The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed astonishing sights and the James Webb Telescope will reveal many more after it is launched.

The gods are very fickle in how they hand out historical immortality. The other eleven men who walked on the moon are just as brave, just as competent, as Neil Armstrong. But because he was the first, he will ever be the personification of this great era in human exploration we have lived through, one of the iconic Americans of the 20th century.