One Small Step, One Giant Leap: The Passing of Neil Armstrong

Written by Frank White.

The passing of Neil Armstrong marks the passing of an era, which was the comment made by my colleague David Beaver when I forwarded the email announcing Armstrong’s death to him.

Neil Armstrong lived at a time when human beings in general, and Americans in particular, dreamed big dreams, embraced grand visions, and realized what seemed to be impossible goals—like landing a man on the moon and returning him to Earth within a decade.

We did things then, as President John F. Kennedy said, “not because they were easy, but because they were hard.”

Armstrong was exactly right when he stepped onto the moon and called it “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”  The step was physical, the leap conceptual, and all of us took it with him. Our tax dollars paid for the mission, thousands of our fellow citizens worked on the project, and because of television technology, we traveled to the moon with Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, the crew of Apollo 11.

We were there when he became the first of what will eventually be many people to walk on the moon. At that moment, humans became, or had the potential to become, a multi-planet species.

From the perspective of the Overview Effect, that moment was also a milestone. Not only did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon but they also stood on its surface and snapped the first pictures of the Earth ever taken from that point of view.

These early “Earthrise” photos once again proved what astronaut Joe Allen said when I interviewed him for The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution:

With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the most important reason.

“Earthrise” is a special case of the Overview Effect. It calls to mind the Copernican Perspective, which is the realization not only that the Earth is a whole in which everything is interconnected but that it is also part of another whole, the solar system.

Many people are now recounting their stories of meetings with Neil Armstrong, as our colleague Dan Curry has done so ably on this website. Allow me, then, to describe my only meeting with the Apollo 11 commander.

It took place at MIT, where a meeting of the president’s National Commission on Space was being held in the mid-1980s. I was invited to the meeting by George Field, who was then at the Harvard/Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and a member of the commission. I later worked on the commission’s report with Professor Field.

During a lunch break, I found myself in the elevator with none other than Neil Armstrong, who was also a commissioner. The conversation was brief, and as I recall, I introduced myself and told him I was writing a book about the astronauts and their experiences in space, something I called “the Overview Effect.”

He said something along the lines of “Many of them will have difficulty describing it.” He didn’t volunteer anything further and it was clear that asking him for an interview at that time was inappropriate.

Later, I did write him with a request for an interview, and he refused me in a nice and thoughtful note, which was not a surprise, given his typical reticence around such inquiries. I was, however, surprised and pleased that he took the opportunity in his note to say a few kind words about my work in support of the commission.

Many commentators have noted Neil Armstrong’s reluctance to discuss his experiences in orbit or on the moon. Those of us who are fascinated with what the astronauts did have taken the opposite tack, and we are constantly talking, writing, and blogging about it. There are times, however, when a respectful silence in the face of awesome mysteries says more than a thousand words. By being quiet, perhaps Armstrong was giving us the “space,” in more ways than one, to discover our own meaning in his exploits.

In the end, of course, it was as much what they did as what they said that made the Apollo astronauts heroes, in the truest sense of the word. As sad as we are at the passing of Neil Armstrong, perhaps we can take comfort in the words he spoke from the moon to an expectant Earth:

The Eagle has landed.