A bad week for Armstrongs

21:29, Aug 31 2012

Two "heroes" fell this past week, one to the ravages of age and disease, the other to the inevitability of truth and logic. They shared a surname, Armstrong, but in most other respects they were chalk and cheese.

I was 4 going on 5 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. It wasn't live on television and he didn't have the ability to tweet or post on Facebook when, in his own words, he made that "giant leap for mankind".

His achievement on July 16, 1969, was the culmination of years of research and competition on both sides of the Iron Curtain and doubtless the media hype accompanying it was largely a propaganda exercise designed to counter the success of the Soviet Sputnik programme and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first journey into space.

But geopolitics had nothing to do with the utter fascination with space the Apollo 11 landing sparked in me.

My mother still laughs about me putting on my rain coat and gumboots, tying a cardboard box to my back with string and cutting a hole in another which I stuck on my head. I would then borrow the brush and shovel from under the kitchen sink and walk around the back garden in slow motion picking up "moon rocks".

My father brought colour posters of the astronauts on the Moon home from the offices of The Dominion. He kept every newspaper which had diagrams and graphics showing how the rocket was launched, the command module and lunar lander manoeuvred, separated and were reunited during the mission, and how Armstrong piloted the flimsy Eagle to touch down at Tranquillity base.

For those who are currently looking for ways to engage young people in science and learning, I would recommend sending humans into space to boldly go where no man has gone before. It might not have been an iPhone app, but it certainly got me interested.

There were board games - Moon Race was the best, I thought - and astronaut toys and rocket models and Nasa pens and all sort of other merchandise to keep us excited. Like others of my generation, I believed there was a real possibility I might visit a moon colony in my lifetime and thought we would have hundreds of scientists living in massive cartwheel-shaped space stations orbiting the Earth.

Of course, it hasn't really worked out like that and, with the shuttles retired and Skylab long gone, we are reduced to watching overweight computer geeks at mission control high-five as a rover called Curiosity with half the computing power of a mobile phone broadcasts rap music on Mars.

But none of that detracts from the significance of Neil Armstrong's achievements during and after the Apollo 11 mission. He never went back to space and, despite being feted around the world, sought to lead a normal life. He did not cash in on his fame or become a "celebrity". He taught and worked and spent time with his family. While walking on the Moon was certainly the high point of his public life, I like to think he also taught us that just living a good life on Earth can be just as challenging.

I didn't become an astronaut, I'll never visit the Moon, but I would like to think I might yet live as honest and humble a life as Neil Armstrong did.

The other hero called Armstrong has doubtless faced challenges, too. He has clearly been an inspiration for those battling cancer or seeking to overcome adversity. But how can anyone who promotes himself as a hero and a hard-done-by victim of celebrity so meekly give up the fight to clear his name?

Lance Armstrong's feet, like Neil Armstrong's, are made of clay, but the mud which has been slung at the cycling superman is now clinging too persistently for the athlete to brush it off.

As Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams knows, drug cheats will come and go in sport, but it is the true champions and heroes who live on in the record books and our memories.

Much has changed in the world and my life since July 16, 1969, including the birth of my son exactly 30 years later. I cannot help but feel a sense of ennui that the world in which he grew up did not have a hero like Neil Armstrong to admire.


The Dominion Post