“The Sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains —
Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
God bless, Neil Armstrong, American hero, Moonwalker, icon. When Armstrong took his one small step off the ladder of the Apollo Lunar Module (LM), “Eagle”, human history changed forever. Armstrong nailed it when he spoke words which are forever inscribed in the collective memory of the human race as he touched the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”
The death of America’s quietest astronaut one year ago this week is occasion for celebration of not only the event of the Apollo 11 mission to complete the challenge of President John F. Kennedy to the nation in his address to Congress on May 25, 1961. There Kennedy proclaimed, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
It is interesting to note that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, fulfilled the President’s goal for the nation – a directive which helped our country to strive and grow in the areas of math and sciences in a manner previous unknown. The mission was taken on in the midst of the competitive Cold War and heated up the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. From second place, the United States moved forward. With the landing of the Eagle at Tranquility Base on the surface of the Moon and the successful splashdown in the Pacific of the crew which included Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, the Space Race came to an end with the Soviets giving up their own goal to place Cosmonauts on the Moon.
It is a long way from Wapakoneta, Ohio to the surface of the Moon – some 238,900 miles. Neil Armstrong was born in a small non-descript farmhouse outside of that farming community. Armstrong’s interest in aviation took shape from the time he took a ride in a barnstorming Ford Tri-motor. He attended a local church – known today as St. Paul United Church of Christ. I have visited the town and walked the streets, and made a pilgrimage to the church and to the small museum dedicated in 1971. After the Moon, Armstrong returned to his hometown for a celebration that included a parade, public gathering and a church supper for VIPs. While it was modest by comparison to the massive parades, dinners and parties held in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, his hometown’s pride was evident in its wholesome embrace of one of its own.
The last time I visited Wapakoneta was for the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 and it was quite an event. Driving past St. Paul, I thought of a young Neil Armstrong attending church with his parents, participating in Sunday school programs and being confirmed as a full member of the United Church of the Christ. When Armstrong completed his first mission as a NASA astronaut aboard Gemini 8, the church had a big sign placed prominently on it saying, “St Paul’s Church is Proud of her son NEIL.”
When Armstrong lifted off from Cape Canaveral aboard Apollo 11 there was an around-the-clock prayer vigil held at the church which was continuous throughout the mission, ending only once the crew had returned and were safely aboard their recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The church members gave thanks to God and were grateful that their son was safe having completed the mission with his crewmembers. One of their own had been to the Moon and in fact had been the first man to walk on its surface. Not bad for a local boy who would forever be written in the history books.
Yet Armstrong was somewhat of a recluse. After the required world tour where he met royalty, statesmen and an audience with the Pope at the Vatican, Armstrong retired from NASA and began to live a quiet life. He chose not to play upon his fame and focused rather on teaching at the University of Cincinnati, unlike his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin who seemed to take every opportunity for self-promotion, selling Volkswagens and Cadillacs, appearing on television shows such as The Simpsons and Dancing with the Stars.
Armstrong remained a silent and somewhat distant figure. He only came out publicly for official significant anniversaries of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and when he was asked to serve as the Vice-Chairman on the Presidential Commission of the Challenger Disaster.
In May 2010 Armstrong made a dramatic appearance before a Senate Committee where he openly criticized President Obama’s plans for space which included the end of the Space Shuttle program and America’s reliance on the Russians for transportation to the International Space Station. Armstrong believed that America needs to be a strong presence in space. He noted that our “national investment in space exploration, and our sharing of the knowledge gained with the rest of the world, has been made wisely and has served us very well.”
One of the key benefits of the American space program has been the collective consciousness of the Earth as a unified organism. We are truly one planet created and formed by an intelligence which is beyond our comprehension. In the vastness of black space, our little Pale Blue Dot of a planet stands alone in the Cosmos teeming with life in a myriad of forms, shapes, and substance.
Armstrong once commented on the scope of it all as he walked the surface of the Moon. He observed, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
Perhaps the First Man on the Moon was recalling a lesson he learned at St. Paul as a young child in Sunday school. The lesson where the Psalmist noted, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8.3-4)
So, thanks to God for the life, service and witness of Neil Armstrong and all those involved in the Apollo missions – including those sacrificed on the altar in pursuit of a better life on Earth by pursing the dream of spaceflight – who inspired us to understand ourselves, our Cosmos but also the mind of our God.
“The heavens are the mind of God, the systems are His word,
The message of the All-in-One, the Ever-Seen and Heard,
In planets He has marked His name, in galaxies His thought,
And the shapes of constellations are the dreams that He has wrought.”
– Stanton A. Coblentz