I guess everybody has heard by now that Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot onto the surface of the Moon, died yesterday aged 82.
I wasn’t alive when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon on July 20, 1969. In fact, no human being has walked on the Moon in my lifetime, since Apollo 17 returned from the last manned Moon mission four month before my birth. And if that isn’t depressing than I don’t know what is.
Oddly enough I never much wondered about that except for a brief sadness that I never got to see a human being walk on the Moon live. Still, childhood and teenaged me knew for certain that the Apollo program was only the first step to bigger and better things, that the only reason no one was flying to the Moon anymore was because they were obviously preparing to fly to destinations that were a lot more interesting. Yeah, so call me naive. But NASA did a pretty good job of selling the Space Shuttle as the awesome and cool next stage of manned spaceflight, even though it never went further than low Earth orbit. And teenaged me never really grasped that the whole space program was just a game of one-upmanship between the US and the Soviet Union, because hey – space flight was cool and the future and anyway, how could anybody need a reason to fly into space? On the contrary, how could anybody not want to fly into space? Never mind that to us children of the space age, the US-Soviet rivalry never meant much, because we all knew where it would go anyway. After all, we had seen Pavel Chekhov on the bridge of the Enterprise and Tamara Jagellowsk on the bridge of the Orion. We knew that Russians and Americans would cooperate eventually and that the only reason why they didn’t do so already was because politicians were stupid. Well, at least I was right on that count. Because Americans, Russians, Europeans and other nations are cooperating in space these days. Though I still wish that someone would go back to the Moon and that we’d finally sent something other than robots to Mars. Not that Curiosity isn’t damn impressive.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Neil Armstrong in person at a “Promote Science and Technology” TV event in Hannover, where I was in the live studio audience. One of my translation customers was a corporate sponsor and a kindly soul there gave me free tickets, because he knew that I had a bit of a history in ultra-local TV and was interested in the mechanics of making television shows. I got to see a bunch of German celebrities and revised my opinion of Thomas Gottschalk and Günther Jauch, because they really are good, when experienced live. But the big highlight of the evening was undoubtedly seeing and hearing Neil Armstrong speak about his experiences. He got standing ovations, the only person in a celebrity studded program who did.
I still hope that someday, humanity will return to the Moon and get to visit all those other exciting destinations that I was certain we would as a teenager. But no matter how much further we may go someday, Neil Armstrong will always be the man who took the first step.