Neil Armstrong RIP
August 29, 2012, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I don’t have much to add to various wise and lovely things that have already been said about the great man by friends and others. My colleague Tim Cross’s obituary struck me as warm and perceptive

As the first man to walk on another world, Armstrong received the lion’s share of the adulation. All the while, he quietly insisted that the popular image of the hard-charging astronaut braving mortal danger the way other men might brave a trip to the dentist was exaggerated. “For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger,” he told one interviewer before his fateful flight. Done properly, he opined, spaceflight ought to be no more dangerous than mixing a milkshake.

Indeed, the popular image of the “right stuff” possessed by the astronaut corps—the bravery, the competitiveness, the swaggering machismo—was never the full story. The symbol of the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, where Armstrong spent years testing military jets, is a slide rule over a stylised fighter jet. In an address to America’s National Press Club in 2000, Armstrong offered the following self-portrait: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.

Particularly grateful for the nuance he brings to the notion of “The right stuff”, which many others failed to bring out. It’s a complex and layered book, and far from a simple paean.

Clive Crook’s response struck, unusually for Clive, a personal tone. In general, I was struck by how many memories people were blogging and tweeting were about their fathers.

When it came to what NASA accomplished, [my father’s] admiration turned to awe. It makes me chuckle even now to think back to it. This reverence was so unlike him. He wanted me to understand just how difficult a thing it was–and how daring. “I know you think it’s incredibly hard, but it’s so much harder than that.” He followed the engineering as closely as he could and explained a lot of it to me. He persuaded me so well that I secretly decided it couldn’t actually be done. The margins for error were just too small. I was sure something would go wrong and they’d fail. Of course we stayed up all night and watched the video of the first walk on the surface. We were both moved to tears.

Neil Gaiman posted this picture, which is not just great fun but also seems to capture a particular happiness on Mr Armstrong’s part.

Three Neils

And Roz Kaveney was, as always, inimitable

Endymion – for Neil Armstrong

In her white silent place, the hangings dust,
grey pebbles stretching to the edge of black
so far away. The goddess feels a lack
somewhere elsewhere, an ache deep as her crust

and weeps dry tears. The gentleman is gone
the first who ever called. His feet were light
as he danced on her. Went into the night
quite soon, his calling and his mission done

yet still his marks remain. Footfalls and flag.
The others she forgets. He was the first
to slake her ages long and lonely thirst
for suitors. Now she feels the years drag

as they did not before he came to call.
Our grief compared to hers weighs naught at all.

I have little to add. He was clearly a magnificent man, and, as Tim notes, one who would never have dreamed of trying to take credit for the remarkable political and technological instrumentality that took him so high into the sky. Many mourning his passing mourn the passing of  that instrumentality, too, and would wish it revived. It is a feeling that I understand, though less well than once I did, but cannot share. It does no disservice to Mr Armstrong’s memory to believe, as I have come to, that now is not the time to try and recapitulate those achievements, nor to try and surpass them with similar feats of human space exploration.

And if you feel worried about giving up the honour that goes with the next landing on the moon to the Chinese, remember that their envoy has already been there. The process that sent him there might have been deeply rooted in the cold war: but Neil Armstrong really did come in peace for all mankind.


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