You would be forgiven for thinking that the much-hyped Curiosity rover was NASA’s most ambitious extra-terrestrial landing. The past forty years have seen a global retreat from manned space exploration: standing on the Moon with our eyes to Mars, the Shuttle programme has instead extradited us back to Earth. Where once they played golf off an airless, basaltic fairway, astronauts now run circles in the backyard of Low Earth Orbit.
But 43 years and 15 days before Curiosity was spirited onto the Red Planet, Neil Armstrong was turning off his Tamagotchi of a guidance computer, and taking manual control of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. With twenty seconds of fuel remaining, and a heart rate of 156 beats per minute, Armstrong landed near a field of boulders, performing what can only be described as the most complicated parking manoeuvre in vehicular history. A short while later, he emerged from the hatch, slid down the ladder and delivered his legendary incantation.
Stepping awkwardly onto that lunar dust, Armstrong won President Kennedy’s space race. Consciously or not, he became the emblem of American manifest destiny, and represented a promising new breed of national icons – pioneering, noble, vaguely larrikin, and thoroughly unprepossessing. Literally and symbolically, they rose above the mire that was the terrestrial Cold War.
His biography will be familiar by now, with obituaries at the front of every paper: his aviation adventures over Korea, into the stratosphere, and well beyond the sound barrier; his exploits with NASA; his fiercely guarded post-Apollo life. It is an appropriately ironic way of celebrating this preternaturally modest hero that his name should be emblazoned – again – around the world.
We tend to remember what he did, and not who he was. Armstrong resented the trappings of celebrity, and this withdrawn stoicism made it difficult for the public to become familiar with the man himself. Perhaps that is all we need to know – perhaps Neil Armstrong was just an engineer who loved to test and teach; a pilot who loved to fly.
So how best to articulate his personal legacy? Building a wind tunnel in his parents’ backyard, he epitomised the kid who dreams of becoming an astronaut. And though he dies, some 43 light years away, radio waves continue to broadcast his peaceable message to outer space.