Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Other Armstrong

On July 20, 1969 Commander Neil Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin Aldrin successfully landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the surface of the moon. Several hours later Armstrong exited the lunar module in which he'd landed and became the first human being to set foot on the moon's surface.

I'll always remember that electric moment for the rest of my life. I was a high school freshman at the time. I had soaked up the entire space race from the earliest Mercury missions on. I'd built every plastic space model I could afford. I'd read every space book and magazine article published up to that time. The year before I'd seen 2001 and couldn't wait to go into space. I was one stoked geek with a ring-side seat to the future. That night, my brother and I sat in a darkened room with our black-and-white TV and watched Neil Armstrong step off the LEM and onto the surface of the moon and into history.

The Apollo program continued on through Apollo 13 and on to the last mission, Apollo 17 in 1972. That was the year I graduated high school and headed to Ga. Tech to study electrical engineering. The end of Apollo had a profound negative effect on me that has stayed with me ever since. I watched our country dismantle a good portion of our space program, and I saw many good and bright people laid off. Despite Skylab, the space shuttle, Hubble, numerous deep space missions and our multi-billion dollar international space station, NASA and the space program has never matched the edge or excitement that led to the landing on the moon.

Life and living is about people. It's about overcoming incredible odds to achieve incredible goals. Neil Armstrong personified American ingenuity and know-how to land on the moon. Neil Armstrong would have never reached the moon without the help and resources of American technology, but he was the right man to represent us at the time. Lance Armstrong, closer to home and in history, also overcame incredible odds (beating cancer and Tour rivals) to become a seven-consecutive-time Tour winner. Across the span of 36 plus years both men share many important characteristics; the desire to succeed, dedication to their dreams, intelligence, careful planning, and resilience to adversity. And most importantly, excitement.

Space exploration is more than just sending out unmanned probes. Yes, we've gotten a lot of excellent science from the unmanned probes, there's no denying that, but at a glacially slow pace. What we haven't gotten is a sense of true adventure. And that takes a human being on the spot that we can identify with. We send out our robots to look at very small slices of the universe while we sit in comfort back on Earth. We crawl slowly over the surface of Mars and when problems strike, we take forever to find and execute a solution. We've grown timid and slow over the last 30 years. We're managers and administrators and cautious engineers, not dynamic explorers.

How wonderful it would be if Lance Armstrong could help infuse a new sense of dynamic zeal to American manned space flight and give back to us what Neil Armstrong introduced to us so long ago; walking on the surfaces of other worlds. I can only hope.

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