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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A “Giant Leap for Mankind”

No one who heard them live will ever forget two sentences that Neil Armstrong spoke in July 1969, in his flat, calm, Middle American voice. That voice, an indelible part of human history, has been stilled by his death, at 82, on 25 August. During his career Armstrong modestly described himself as a “white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” reports the Los Angeles Times. But he also proved himself a steel-nerved, dauntless, and extremely skilled flyer as a Korean War pilot, a test pilot, and the commander of Apollo 11, the mission that became a milestone in the history of space exploration.

Back in those days Armstrong, along with his crewmates and fellow astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, became the world-famous human faces of the U.S. space program. Combining technical training and expertise with dramatic physical courage, the astronauts inspired in countless young people an interest in science and technology. Armstrong held a bachelors in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University and a masters in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California, and in his post-astronaut years he served as professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Aldrin held a D.Sc. in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Collins a bachelors degree in engineering from the United States Military Academy. 

Armstrong’s death brings memories not only of an unforgettable day, but of an era when the excitement of vast new frontiers of discovery gave work in science and technology tremendous prestige and when ample government support of the space program offered qualified persons attractive careers. The landing on the moon highlighted the work of the many thousands of scientists, engineers, and other workers who had contributed to the effort.

The first of Armstrong’s history-changing utterances came late in the afternoon (at least on the East Coast of the United States) of July 20th, as the world witnessed the most amazing thing any of us could ever imagine happening in our lifetimes. He said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” What he was telling Mission Control in Houston was that the space capsule that he and Aldrin had been riding in–a portion of the original rocket that had carried the astronauts from Earth–had come safely to rest on the lunar surface.  

The last few minutes of the perilous flight from Earth had been harrowing. The computer meant to provide guidance failed to keep up with the stream of data and the capsule’s landing fuel was just about gone. Armstrong, however, piloted the craft unharmed to the ground in the moon region called the Sea of Tranquility. 

From Houston came a flat, disciplined response: “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground.”  And then the unrehearsed, human part: “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

And those breathless guys–and gals–were not only at Mission Control. All over the world we gasped and cheered and even wept. Perhaps half a billion people, out of a total world population of about 3.6 billion, saw Armstrong live on television that day, when TV were much less numerous than they are now. Others followed on radio. 

Then, 6 hours later, came Armstrong’s riveting second statement, as the capsule door opened and we saw him step down a short ladder, unbelievably, onto the surface of the moon. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said. (He actually, quite understandably given the circumstances, flubbed his line, intending to say “one small step for man.”)  

That day and the next were like unofficial national holidays, and probably two of the greatest days to be an American that there ever were–but also to be an inhabitant of Planet Earth of any nationality. There was a feeling of exaltation shared by everyone you met. And though Armstrong and Aldrin, who followed him down the ladder, erected an American flag, they also left behind a plaque stating, “We came in peace for all mankind,” along with scientific instruments. 

Armstrong and Aldrin later blasted off from the moon to rendezvous with Collins, who had also come on the original rocket and had been waiting in the spacecraft Columbia (formed from another portion of that rocket), which was orbiting the moon. The excitement at this accomplishment was immense, because nobody knew for sure that the complicated plan to place men on the moon and bring them safely home again would actually work.  

But it did work, and the three came back in triumph. I don’t think it is possible to convey in today’s tech-drenched society just how astounding and miraculous the moon mission appeared. When the moon rocks were put on display, people were thrilled to wait in long lines for a chance to glimpse clumps of stone that looked remarkably like those on Earth. When the Voice of America offered an autographed picture of the astronauts to any listener who wrote in, a friend who worked there told me, the flood of letters from around the world filled the offices with huge mailbags stuffed with requests.

Over the years, the manned space program came to be regarded by some as quaint and kind of corny and careers in related fields lost much of their glamour. But in that long-ago summer, most people saw the effort as the fulfillment of a dream as old as our species’s curiosity about the heavens and also as an immensely bold, dangerous, and utterly thrilling adventure, a combination of stunning scientific and technological brilliance and great individual courage and skill. 

I, like millions of others, can still feel the excitement and awe that Armstrong’s words and actions stirred that day. I only wish that conditions existed so that today’s young people could also feel some of that wonder and have better practical opportunities to set their sights on the unknown.