Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Remembering the Man on the Moon

“How alarmingly distance has shrunk,” Sebastiaan Brill wrote in the Burger, referring to “Sunday night...when you could hear how the space traveller’s space craft descended foot by foot to the surface of the moon...”  South Africans, unlike the worldwide television audience of around 600 million, had to experience the moon landings sitting glued to the radio.

Interestingly, the moon landings prompted a lot of fuss about television in South Africa.  The Sunday Times wrote at the time that since we didn’t have television, South Africa would be deprived of seeing the “greatest human event”.  

Who was Neil Armstrong?

Many of the current generation, born since the 1970’s, have a limited idea of what actually happened on that Sunday in June, on the moon.  And even less, what sort of character Armstrong was – a man who earned his pilot’s license before his driver’s, and was flying sorties over North Korea at the tender age of 19.
The mark that sets the first man on the moon apart from everyone else seems to be one thing in particular: Neil Armstrong’s modesty.  It’s for this reason too, that our best photo of man on the moon was taken by Armstrong of Aldrin, rather than the other way round.
In the excellent authorised biography of Armstrong by James R. Hansen, Armstrong's humble personality would have precluded him from telling Aldrin, "Hey, take a photo of me why don'tcha!" Aldrin himself admitted later to being 'intimidated' by having the focus of millions on him, and so admitted to not thinking 'creatively'.  Hence the best photos from that first lunar walk are Armstrong’s.

First Words

Many theories also surround Armstrong's famous words when he stepped on the moon's surface. Officially, Armstrong said: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Some crackle and distortion can be heard. There is of course a world of difference between what Armstrong said and what he thought he said. Armstrong says he meant to say: "That's one small step for a man..." By leaving out the article, Armstrong was in effect referring twice to 'mankind', with the first synecdoche making it grammatically flawed.

Worse still, by referring to himself as 'man', Armstrong would have been taking some license upon himself as representative of all human Earthlings, a license many would not be loathe to grant him during such a feat.

Despite the technical aspects, everyone knows what Armstrong was trying to say, and it remains one of the most memorable statements ever made. When did Armstrong think to say it, and what influenced him?

The Hobbit

Bilbo Baggins, in a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, leaps over the creature Gollum. Tokien describes this jump as 'not a great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark.' The fact that Armstrong named his farm Rivendell (the elf sanctuary in the Rings trilogy) would seem to support this theory. However Armstrong says he only read Tolkien's books after 1969.

The plaque given to the two astronauts to place on the moon has the inscription, ‘We came in peace for all mankind," which may have sowed something of a seed in Armstrong's mind.

Armstrong says he thought of the statement only a few moments before stepping out of the LM. It was a spur of the moment thought which Armstrong says he merely associated with what he was doing - stepping out onto the moon.


Also fascinating in the Hansen biography is that the Columbia needed to rotate whilst flying between the moon and the Earth in order to prevent one side from becoming sizzling hot and the other from freezing.  Despite walking on the moon, the pair also slept on the moon for seven hours – spending in total over 21 hours on the moon surface.

All three astronauts concurred that the Earth did not only look stunning, but incredibly fragile and vulnerable given their experience of the  beauty and magnitude of space. 


It would be good to end on a happy note, but not entirely fair to reality.  Armstrong had some good reasons to be reclusive.  His wife Janet did not want to be 'Neil Armstrong's wife' and of course, the more the media intruded, the more she felt she was just that.  One of Armstrong's worst fears manifested when she announced she was divorcing him.  A cruel twist, to be dishonored by your significant other, for the same thing the rest of the world loved you for.  This was the source of a depression which plagued Armstrong for some of his life. 
Armstrong was trying to preserve his life, and felt that he needed to do so by not developing a celebrity persona.  In this sense, he may not have been wrong.

More Apollo 11 Facts

109 hours, 42 minutes after launch, Armstrong stepped onto the moon for the first time at 10:56:15 p.m. EDT July 20, 1969.
20 minutes later, Aldrin did the same.
A camera was placed on a tripod about 30 feet from the LM. 30 minutes later, President Nixon spoke to them over the phone.
The pair traversed just 250 metres of the lunar surface.
Mementoes left on the moon included patches from the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission, which ended prematurely after a fire engulfed the capsule killing three U.S. astronauts, and medals belonging to Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin.  Both died in flight in 1967 and 1968.
 They returned with 21.7 kilograms of soil and rock samples.
The Lunar Module left the moon on July 21, 1969 at 1:54:01 p.m. EDT
Apollo 11 returned to Earth on July 24, 1969, touching down at 12:50:35 p.m. EDT

Read more.

No comments: