The airwaves today should still be filled with tributes to Neil Armstrong, but instead the media have returned to the stories they haven’t had the decency to put aside — politics and political conventions. Perhaps it’s because their anchors, managers, and stockholders are for the most part too young to remember or care about the day Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the surface of the moon. Perhaps to most of them that story has already become one of those dusty old legends that only dusty old people still remember with awe and speak of in superlatives.
I remember like it was yesterday how we hovered around the television and watched and waited and listened with bated breath until we finally heard Armstrong say, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The room exploded with cheers. And after all the cheering had subsided, we waited again until we heard him say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped from the lunar lander and into history. It was an extraordinary time. We knew without a doubt that America could meet any challenge, set any goal, and accomplish any mission. We moved forward from that day, supremely confident in ourselves, our country, and our future.
Today I came across a commentary by Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce, someone else who remembers that day. And he reminded me of another hero of mine, one whose accomplishment I had deemed the greatest ever until Armstrong walked on the moon — Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Mount Everest. He was the man who, more than anyone else, fueled my lifelong love of mountains. Pierce speaks of his great admiration of Hillary, whose autograph he was lucky enough to acquire, and of Armstrong, whose autograph he deemed the only other one fit to share space with Hillary’s. He never got that autograph. And he notes how it won’t be all that many years before none of us will be able to get an autograph from or speak with any of the remaining men who have walked on the moon. They are old now, and when they are gone there won’t be a single human being on the entire planet who can tell us firsthand what the moon is really like. Not long after that, those of us who remember seeing it happen will join them in the dustbin of history, along with those who’ve always insisted it never happened at all; it was a hoax perpetrated on a gullible television audience. And there will be no one left to dispute their claim and no one left to whisper the truth because, as Pierce puts it, our “country’s ambition is a small and withered thing.”
The NASA website has a report of that first moon landing back in 1969. It concludes:
Over the next three and a half years, 10 astronauts will follow in their footsteps. Gene Cernan, commander of the last Apollo mission leaves the lunar surface with these words: “We leave as we came and, god willing, as we shall return, with peace, and hope for all mankind.”
The bootprints of Apollo are waiting for company.