Monday, September 3, 2012

Where have you gone, Neil Armstrong?

On Saturday August 25th, Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82.  

As I'm sure is the case for anyone over 50, one of my most powerful memories ever is watching a grainy, black and white image where I could barely make out a man in a huge space suit stepping off a ladder, and struggling to understand that what I was watching was taking place 240,000 miles away, on the surface of the moon.  Although the 8-year old version of myself did, of course, realize that the event was historic, I could not imagine that, 43 years later, it would still stand as (arguably) mankind’s most significant accomplishment.

It has been reported that Armstrong’s serene personality and low profile demeanor were among the reasons NASA selected him over his crewmate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to be the first man to step off the Lunar Module on that fateful July 20th.  If this was indeed the case, history bears NASA's decision out as amazingly prescient, for Armstrong, who thus became the public face of the most important feat ever performed by human beings, handled his post-mission role with elegance, aplomb and self-deprecation.  Always deflecting personal credit and instead emphasizing the team nature of the undertaking, Armstrong unassumingly faded into the sunset, never flying into space again and leaving NASA in 1971 for a teaching position in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati.  Even his choice of university exemplified his aversion to pretension, since he felt that the faculty at the small aerospace department at UC would not be annoyed at his coming straight into a full professorship with only a master’s degree, as they may have been, for example, at the larger department at his alma mater Purdue.

In my mind, Neil Armstrong is as much a hero for the way in which he handled himself after his moon landing as for his role in the landing itself.  In the words of Charles F. Bolden Jr., the current NASA administrator, Armstrong “carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all.”  Armstrong precisely embodied the prototypical test pilot / astronaut mentality, so brilliantly exemplified in movies such as "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13", where the emphasis is on quietly getting things done, and letting others do the celebrating.  Doing their job, not for the money, not for the fame, but because it's a job that needs doing.   The satisfaction of a job well done is reward enough for these men and women.

Neil Armstrong's legacy transcends his accomplishments and instead encompasses the idea that humility enhances heroism, while self-aggrandizement deprecates it.  In the face of today’s choreographed touchdown dances, appalling self-promotion and shameless exhibitionism, Armstrong’s quiet, dignified modesty should be held up as the way accomplishments ought to  be celebrated.  The first man to walk on the moon “...always believed he was just doing his job”.  All of us, from multi-million dollar athletes on down, can certainly benefit from that example.

One final tidbit from the Google Search blog that should leave us all awash in humility: NASA used about as much computing power for the entire Apollo program, in flight and on the ground, as is used for a single Google search today.

What have you and I done with the computing power at our disposal?