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Neil Armstrong

August 28, 2012

I remember the location, the time, the company and the commentators. It was the last of my five “I remember where I was when” events in the Sixties. The first was Kennedy’s assassination. Then there was England’s World Cup win, the first time I heard the Sergeant Pepper album, and a year later the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia – the precursor to the end of the Cold War.

The Apollo 11 moon landing was the first and only event in my lifetime that seemed to bring humanity together. No matter that it was conceived as a weapon in the space race – itself an extension of the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. No matter that the world quickly lost interest as each successive landing seemed to turn the extraordinary into the routine, until the death of Challenger reminded us that space exploration is a dangerous enterprise.

I had been a space nut ever since the first Sputnik launch. I had followed the exploits of Gagarin, Glenn, the Gemini missions. I was captivated by space photography, culminating in the Apollo 8 photos of the earth from space. I and millions of others. But that night was the night – like no other.

I was 18, at home, watching with my father and older brother. James Burke, smooth and authoritative, and the spiky Patrick Moore, the mad professor, interpreting the terse messages from Armstrong, Aldrin and Mission Control. None of us knew at the time what a close run thing it was, and how much the mission owed to Neil Armstrong’s piloting skills. Yes, the program error kept us on a knife edge, but we didn’t know the half of it.

In those seconds before landing, as Armstrong called fifty feet, twenty feet, I was watching pictures in my mind of the dust flying up and Eagle finally touching the surface of another world.

And when the real pictures came – grainy images of Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing onto the moonscape – there was nobody else alive apart from me and the two astronauts. My world was on the moon.

It didn’t last for long, of course. As soon as Richard Nixon came on the radio to congratulate the heroes, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, nukes, cricket, summer holidays and my impending first term at university came flooding back.

Since then I have followed all the space missions. Apollo 13 gripped us anew, as did images of Challenger plummeting to earth. Later in life, I got to meet some of the NASA people, and shared their wide-eyed enthusiasm for all things extra-terrestrial. And now we watch the first crawling of Curiosity in its Martian crater. The fascination has never left me.

We landed on the moon at the dawn of my adulthood. Life has since piled on layer after layer of experience – success, failure, sadness and happiness laced with a measure of cynicism and world-weariness. Some wisdom gained, many mistakes made and many more “I remember where I was when” moments.

But none matched that moment, leaning forward in an armchair in our family home, witnessing an event that will never be repeated and will perhaps never capture the attention of humanity in the same way again. A moment of pure wonder, for me at least.

And for that I thank Neil Armstrong.

From → History, Politics, UK, USA

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