A small step for Neil Armstrong 43 years ago was a giant one for United States credibility and required a leap of faith for those at the high-risk end of the American space programme.
As the Apollo 11 commander stepped from his little ladder on to the Sea of Tranquility and into an unprecedented blaze of fame, the world held its breath as one. Armstrong never seemed comfortable with the inevitable attention and, until his death at the weekend at 82, he remained the quintessential modest and reluctant achiever.
Though many technological advancements and pioneering accomplishments were to come with the space programme, it was Cold War desperation that provided the main driver during the 1960s. Russia had put the first man into space in 1961, prompting US President John F Kennedy to pledge to land a man on the Moon before the decade ended. According to British newspaper The Guardian, Kennedy declared that unless America got cracking, "the first man on the Moon will be called Ivan".
The Apollo 11 crew made the president's deadline by five months. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin circled Earth several times in the Columbia before heading to the Moon. Aldrin and Armstrong then entered the lunar excursion module, Eagle and, as Collins continued to orbit, the other two headed to the Moon's surface.
On July 20, 1969, the world cheered upon hearing: “The Eagle has landed.” Then Armstrong, followed by Aldrin, stepped into a new world of possibilities, spending nearly three hours on the Moon's surface.
In the years to come, the Cold War ended, successive administrations found other reasons to jeopardise the US economy, and Armstrong retreated into as much obscurity as his place in history allowed.
To all but a comparatively few conspiracy theorists, Armstrong is among mankind's great heroes and achievers. A greying generation can recall vividly where they were and what they were doing as, huddled round crackling television sets or transistor radios, they joined the world in marking a staggering achievement. They might well join again in marvelling at what the next four decades have brought.
- The Nelson Mail