Engineer and astronaut Neil Armstrong passed away Saturday at the age of 82. Many newspapers have posted wonderful obituaries and biographies of the man and I urge you to follow the links and check them out. Most people remember him for being the first man to step on the surface of the moon, but he wanted to be remembered as he was in his day-to-day life: an engineer and a pilot. Perhaps unfortunately for him, he became a symbol of space exploration and the never-ending curiosity of humans that pushes us to keep reaching just a little bit beyond our grasp.
Curiosity is the engine that drives all of science. Hell, without the desire to understand a little bit more of the world around us, regardless of the practical applications, there wouldn’t be any science or humanities or anything. But this is the science post, so I’m going to stick with science. Anyway, the descriptions of science as an exploration of the world were often invoked in a metaphorical way. Sure, there may be bits of land catalogued in more detail than ever before and new ways to visualize cells, but overall, the journey to discovery was one made in the mind.
Astronomy and space exploration are two areas where this metaphorical journey became completely real. Funding and research priorities have moved away from manned space exploration, contrary to the wishes of many astronomers and astronauts, but even the unmanned missions to Mars showcase how in space we can very really push the physical and mental boundaries of our knowledge.
Neil Armstrong never embraced the fame that came with being the first man on the moon. From all accounts, he was unhappy with the way the countless hours of work put in by everyone involved with the project were ignored for his small step. Armstrong’s humility and his acknowledgment of the contributions of others to his small step are accurate. For every big discovery, for every giant leap, there are hundreds of people who had built the path to that moment. Nothing is ever done alone.
And yet for all of that, Armstrong is an unshakeable symbol. His step on the moon was a tangible expression of all that science wishes to achieve – new information, more understanding, and a chance to expand the human experience. Yes, countless people worked seemingly endless hours to make that a reality. Yes, he did not get to the moon alone. But that step, which gave a human face and a real momentum to the scientific exploration of our universe, encapsulated the best and most wondrous that science has to offer.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the statement released by Neil Armstrong’s family: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”