Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012



Modern methods of news delivery are rough on the sensibilities. At around eightish last night a notification surfaced on my iPhone from the NYT app; At 82, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, dead. Then that odd sense of personal loss when the death occurs of someone who you didn't really know, had never met, but very much admired.

For people my age the loss of Armstrong closes a chapter strongly associated with the wonder of childhood and the sense of burgeoning possibility, that you too might be an astronaut and Space generally was going to be ours for the sampling. Remember that game around in the seventies, Careers? The best one was being an astronaut. Later you found out that actually this wasn't a job choice for you, but really for an elite within an elite, the very best pilots who were also tremendous scientists and analytical thinkers. It helped to be an American, or a Russian, or at least from a country that got on with them very well.

The original Gemini and Apollo astronauts were great fliers, but the factor that recommended Armstrong and his kin to NASA, and to the rest of us, was nerve. The Saturn V, and I have stood next to one lying flat on its side like a stricken white dinosaur, does not look safe. It is not safe. It is the nearest a vehicle can come to a controlled explosion. There was an escape system - you can see the handle on the schematics and it's featured in the film Apollo 13, but pulling it was unthinkable, I would guess. It wasn’t done. Nobody did it.

Armstrong and his brethren were the steely concentrated point of a spear thrown by a rattled superpower; Kennedy recognised that it was unacceptable for the Russians to pootle around space unchallenged with their spunky sputniks. He needed a Grand Slam to re-establish the proper order of things, ie with the USA at the top of the interstellar food chain. Hence the space programme, target: The Moon, developed at breakneck speed, with casualties along the way.

Armstrong had nerve, but was of the breed or maybe the generation of people who don’t bother speaking of it. Nothing much about NASA was safe. The training was particularly dangerous; NASA’s attempt to simulate the Lunar landing module was to build a kind of bedstead with a rocket in the middle and thrusters on the side; a pure deathtrap which Armstrong had to eject out of as it turned over and exploded. Most people would go home at that point, but not him, he just shrugged and got on with it. 

Did going to the Moon matter? I don’t think the Moon in itself matters a jot. Not to them at the time, or to us now. There was an audit of moon rock recently, the stuff dragged home in plastic bags at awe inspiring expense; some of it has gone missing. Nobody cares. It’s just geology. That’s what the astronauts did when they got there; bounced around with hammers examining the dust. And once they’d got there, and done this for a while, nobody cared to go back.

The shelved Space Programme illustrates how supremely self interested we are as a species; humans just wanted to know that they could get to such a place. The place itself was not important, the achievement of the journey was the thing. It was the madness of it that gripped. Images persist - at the end, out of fuel, hundreds of feet above the deadly lunar surface, far from rescue, the tiny computer going wonky, Armstrong standing at the window looking for a place to just put the Eagle down. He didn’t go on about it afterwards, leaving us to marvel at it all.

Armstrong and his colleagues dissatisfied in a modern way; having been a locked down individual, married to the mission, its challenges listed by countless dry checklists, he and the others found it problematic to communicate the wonder of it to those of us left down on the ground. Military men, trained to the nth degree, often find it tricky to emote in the right way for the media. He refused to be a trained seal, went off, lectured at a University and farmed. Others in the NASA astronaut office found it harder to come back to earth; divorces, drugs and other hazy questionable stuff sometimes ensued. You could see that making an alteration in our perspective was tricky for the people doing the altering.
Now it’s us that need to alter our perspectives once more; Armstrong and his generation are slowly leaving us. Must his kind of adventure be a thing of the past? It seems unthinkable but when you look at the bill for a manned Mars mission reality kicks in. If humans care to go to Mars ourselves, rather than sending clever cars with cameras (truly that planet is crying out for street view) it can’t be as a national mission done by one power or another for prestige; it must be a joint enterprise, because the cost and risk will be prohibitive. To pick up Armstrong’s gauntlet, national self-interest must be put aside. That would be some legacy.      

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