By NICK THOMAS
If you haven’t heard that Neil Armstrong passed away recently, you’ve probably been living on the far side of the Moon. The beloved astronaut died on August 25 at the age of 82.
As the first human to set foot on the basaltic Moon plain known as the Sea of Tranquility in 1969, Armstrong was destined for history along with Apollo 11 comrades Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.
Of all the crew, Armstrong understandably received the most public attention over the years. As important as Aldrin’s role as lunar module pilot was, being second banana can’t have always been easy for Buzz. If only he’d tied Neil’s boot straps together in the lunar module, he could have scooted out the door first!
There is, of course, no shame in being second. It’s just that textbooks tend to leave your name out. Well, can you recall the second person to climb Mt. Everest, to reach Antarctica, or to eat 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes?
Mind you, Buzz hasn’t done too badly for himself over the years. Being more receptive to publicity than the shier Armstrong, Aldrin has left his mark on the world in many positive and creative ways, and his name is well-known.
Mike Collins, however, got the worst deal.
Alone in the command module, he will forever be known to many as “the other guy” left to circle the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin basked in the Moon landing limelight.
However, Collins handled his role well and, like Armstrong and Aldrin, went on to become a great ambassador for science and space.
While Neil Armstrong’s name is universally recognized across the planet, most of us would turn to Wikipedia for the mission crews immediately before or after Apollo 11.
Apollo 10 carried Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan. Stafford and Cernan came tantalizingly close to being the first on the lunar surface (about 10 miles) during their practice descent for a landing, whilst Young remained orbiting in the command module. But the lunar gods were smiling on Young and Cernan; they walked on the Moon in later Apollo missions.
Pete Conrad and Alan Bean did the moonwalk on Apollo 12.
Even though the Apollo 10 and 12 crews missed out on historic fame “by one Apollo,” they (and the other Apollo teams) went through all the preparation, training, and dangers of the Apollo 11 crew. Armstrong was the first to acknowledge his lesser-known colleagues’ contributions to the U.S. space program.
I never got to interview Neil Armstrong. The closest I came was a brief email correspondence with Jim Hansen, author of the excellent Armstrong biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.
I did, however, chat with Buzz Aldrin back in 2006 for a series of astronaut interviews I did for the Chicago Tribune.
Before the interview, it was suggested I should think twice about asking one particular question. But I asked it anyway.
“So Buzz, what was it like when you first stepped on the surface of the Moon?” There was a short pause, and I’m sure I heard his teeth grinding.
He’d been asked this question a million times, but graciously answered me anyway: “My first words were ‘magnificent desolation,’ which indicated the magnificence of human beings who could build a machine to get them to the Moon and the desolation of the lunar surface which was truly unique compared to anything else I had seen on Earth.”
A dozen men walked on the Moon and experienced that same “magnificent desolation,” a term I find just as powerful as Armstrong’s oft quoted, famous words. But it was Armstrong’s first steps that elevated him to greatest space hero of all.
On his return from the Moon, fame followed Neil Armstrong’s earthly footsteps everywhere. Despite the celebrity pressure, or perhaps because of it, Armstrong tried to live a modest life – a somewhat reluctant hero – and accepted his place in history with grace and dignity.
His cremated ashes were scattered into the Atlantic Ocean on September 14. Even with his passing, he preferred burial at sea rather than being interred under a terrestrial monument for the masses to worship.
So rest easy Commander, on your final journey to this new sea of tranquility.
(Thomas’ features and columns have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)