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07-19-03, 06:50 AM
The Man From Wapakoneta

Exclusive commentary by Christopher G. Adamo

Jul 17, 2003

It was a time when America desperately needed heroes. As the institutions and beliefs that formed the heritage of the nation were being systematically dismantled by counterculture revolutionaries, those who held such things in high regard fervently sought for inspiring reminders of America’s greatness. But all the pop culture of the late 1960’s had to offer in response were its own icons of social collapse, as epitomized by Bob Dylan and Abby Hoffman. The flag was routinely being publicly desecrated, and contempt shown towards every building block of the American establishment. Nihilism and anti-Americanism appeared to be winning the day.

But in the midst of social upheaval, a man came forward and stepped right into the eye of that storm. Wapakoneta Ohio’s most famous son, Neil Armstrong, accepted the challenge to pick up and carry the nation’s tattered flag. And carry it he did, as it had never been carried before, across a quarter million miles of space to a place called Mare Tranquillitatis, “The Sea of Tranquility”, on the surface of the moon.

For multiple reasons, Neil Armstrong was uniquely qualified to be America’s standard-bearer on the epic mission of Apollo Eleven. Though officially listed as NASA’s first civilian astronaut, that description was almost a mischaracterization. He was a veteran of 78 combat missions over Korea, one of which involved bailing out of a crippled aircraft. It was also no disadvantage to him that, as a figure who was bound to grace the cover of every national news magazine, as well as making innumerable public speaking appearances, he possessed the sort of boyish good looks that Hollywood would be hard-pressed to surpass, were it tasked to cast the quintessential astronaut in a movie.

Furthermore, though “coolness under pressure” is a critical quality among all astronauts employed by NASA, Armstrong possessed it to an almost inhuman degree, as exhibited in an incident that occurred only weeks prior to the moon mission. During a practice session in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (an awkward monstrosity that incorporated a combination of jet and rocket propulsion to simulate final approaches to the lunar surface), the craft suddenly veered out of control and started tumbling. Though falling from an altitude of only 500 feet, Armstrong had to stay aboard, riding the vehicle down until it rotated to the proper attitude for him to safely eject. Had he panicked and ejected only a second earlier (an understandable reaction, in consideration of his close proximity to the ground), it would have cost him his life.

For his own part, Armstrong regarded himself as merely one among the multitudes needed to make the moon program a success. Starting with his two fellow crewmembers, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins, Armstrong was quick to point out the efforts of others, without whom his feat would never have been possible. His most famous quote exemplifies this attitude, referring to the personal aspect of his action as merely “one small step”, while characterizing its significance to the human race as a “giant leap.”
When responding to President Nixon’s commendations, given as Armstrong and Aldrin stood on the moon’s surface, he sidestepped the insinuation that their deeds constituted some great personal achievement, describing themselves instead as mere “participants”, representing those from “peaceful nations”, possessing “interest and curiosity” and holding a “vision for the future.”

Unlike so many among the ensuing “boomer” generation, Armstrong was never prone to self-absorption, regarding his role as nothing other than a man doing the job he had trained to do. With the mission ended, the parades passed by, and the spotlights faded, he seemed altogether happy to return to relative obscurity, only making the news as the result of a severe hand injury incurred several years later.

But Neil Armstrong did much more than merely perform his official duties with great skill and expertise. He gave Americans reason to cheer the hope and potential of their country during a period when so many others were seeking to criticize and degrade both its past and its future. On Sunday, July 20 2003, the moon will be in its last quarter, visible only during the early part of the day. Those who happen to glimpse it before it sets might want to take a moment to reflect on the events of another Sunday, some 34 years ago. July 20, 1969 was a day of American greatness and American heroes, both on the ground and across the enormous gulf of space.