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What’s This Footprint Doing In History?

Reams of rhetoric are being scribbled for all to absorb in the world’s first days without Neil Armstrong in it. All of it is sincere and well-placed. He really was an historic figure for stepping on the moon in 1969. But it wasn’t the step itself. It’s what the step represented, then and now.

The achievement of a vehicular landing soft enough to let humans survive in an airless atmosphere was remarkable by itself. It was only nine years since Alan Shepherd had led the parade of flyboys in tin cans who returned to earth plunging into the ocean because it was safer than crashing on land.

And the years between had seen more than their share of tragedies (Grissom, White and Chaffee incinerating on the launch pad) and white-knuckle close calls (“Houston, we have a problem.”)

But Armstrong’s footprint can be tied directly back to January 1960 and John F. Kennedy’s promise to place a man on the moon by 1970. That was a much-needed bit of hubris for a nation terrified of takeover by the Soviet Union, which had not only launched a satellite in 1957, but also had nuclear weapons. America’s space program was strong but slow. Kennedy manned up and took the country with him.

The space race wasn’t some strange celestial machismo ritual, “Let’s see who can spend the most money and risk the most lives to go nowhere.” No, it was the only battle the US and USSR were fighting eye-to-eye, and the winner had a grip on the world’s tiller in an unstable ideological sea.

Whoever conquered space essentially took home all the marbles. The moon was the symbol. “Aim for the moon, and you’ll hit the mountaintop.” Well, now it was, the heck with the mountaintop.

Why were we in this position? Well, just let the timeline out a little more, to the wakeup call in Korea. Those wounds were still fresh and the US was still changing its dressings.  Communism got its best foothold when FDR and Churchill cut their deals with Josef Stalin to fend of Adolf Hitler, whose rise sprang directly from the benign tyranny that Germany suffered through the Treaty of Versailles. Mao’s Long March in 1949 fairly divided the world into ideological halves.

By the time Armstrong took off, America was neck-deep in Vietnam, racial and economic divides, and had endured the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and his brother Jack, the President who issued the guarantee.

All those decades of destruction, brinkmanship, heartache and trauma were answered in the vast silence of a lunar landscape, and one man’s solitary venture into it.

He galvanized us in a way not even the Miracle Mets could do. No one knew what his first words would be. That alone became a national obsession. No one even knew what it was he’d be stepping into. What if where he stepped turned out to be like quicksand? His first words might have been, “Buzz, help!”

To his credit, Armstrong never tried to cash in on his achievement. You never saw, “Hi, I’m Neil Armstrong and I walked on the moon, and if you want to walk tall, you’ll slip into these Hush Puppies…” He spoke out only in his later years, and then only sparingly, about what mattered to him most.

People who can’t see the value in a little robotic vehicle snooping around Mars are conceptual descendants of those who couldn’t see the value of landing on the moon…and so on, and so on, back to “Hey, Columbus, don’t go out there, you’ll fall off the edge!”

Just like everyone else in history, Armstrong will be relegated to a page in a book…later a paragraph…and then a line, if he’s lucky enough to not be overshadowed by whatever happens in the future. But Neil Armstrong wasn’t just the quintessential man of the moment.  He is the moment.

Thanks for the print, Neil, and I’m glad that your trip into the universe this time was a lot easier than the first one. Rest in peace.

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