Neil Armstrong was America’s hero of heros. While he would never want this said of him because, as he said, it took tens of thousands of people to get us to the Moon and it was only a 50 50 chance he would actually land on the moon, this is what he is. It did for sure, but he did take the first step and that was not easy. Walter Cronkite once said of Armstrong that 500 years from now when the history books are written, the 20th century will be remembered for Man Landing on the Moon — and Neil Armstrong. Why? Cronkite clearly a student of history observed that history books today regarding the 15th century only talk about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the New World, and in that order. You see in time, wars, politics, boundary disputes, and the like are all irrelevant when compared to humankind’s quest to discover new things, new worlds, and new ideas.
I was lucky enough to know Neil and his wife Carol. They were so generous with their time and home letting Nathaniel and I stay with them on our trip across America to college in 2009. Like many, the first I had heard of him was when I sat glued to the TV watching that first step after starring for hours at the TV screen of that black and white moonscape just waiting for him to come down the ladder. Later in life, he helped me with a little company, space.com, back in the 1990s. What fun that was despite that it didn’t work out too well. He was always a trooper, always had good ideas, and always brought good sense to our board discussions. And, once he told the board the story of why the pilot sits in the left hand seat of an airplane. It’s a good one told to Neil by his original flight instructor when he was 15 who happened to with the Wright Brothers when it came to pass. You can imagine he had a lot of great stories. Nathaniel and I listened for hours!
We were together at a board meeting when SpaceShipOne made its successful voyage to the edge of space. There he was, clued to the TV screen pointing out everything the news people were not. He commented on the engineering, the trajectory, the issues and concerns, but mostly he commented on how great it was to see this endeavor. While skeptical of commercial space flight, he never thought it a bad idea for folks to try.
Neil always thought he knew his place in the world. Last year I inquired of him to be the keynote speaker at the National Convention of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society, and where 400 or 500 of America’s top engineers gather each year. He politely declined saying something like, ‘if I could do it justice I would but I’m afraid the bar is very high to address a distinguished group like this and at my age I fear I would let them down.’
So Neil, we will miss you very much. We will miss your subtle and humble leadership on matters of national importance and we will miss your always optimistic smile and charm. As he inspired me to think that, if you don’t invest in the future, you will have no future.