by Jonathan Rothwell

Neil Armstrong 1930—2012

Neil Armstrong was a true hero.

I don’t bandy that word around lightly. I don’t describe athletes and sportsmen, for instance, as heroes (unless, of course, they pull kittens from housefires in their spare time.) I think the use of the word, like the word ‘celebrity,’ has become somewhat diluted in recent years by the sports media’s insistence on applying the label to footballers, to rugby players, to cricketers, to anyone who wins any sort of competitive game.

But Neil Armstrong was a hero, by any reasonable definition of the word. He, with Buzz Aldrin, were the first human beings to set foot on another world. This was a genuine new frontier, and many must have considered the moonshots to be a suicide mission—we even know that President Nixon had prepared statements to be made to the nation in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin were not to return.

In all the fuss over the Moon landing, it is easy to forget that Armstrong was much more than a flash-in-the-pan astronaut. He was an engineer, a fighter pilot, a test pilot, a proud American and a proud human being. He taught aerospace engineering from 1971. He was involved heavily in the investigation into the Challeger space shuttle disaster, as vice-chair of the committee and bringing his expertise to the investigation. Armstrong himself always considered himself to be a “white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” and was somewhat reluctant as an American hero, allowing Aldrin to take most of the limelight.

Here, then, is why Neil Armstrong is a true hero. He was modest, even though he and his two crewmates went on a suicide mission for no reason other than to survive it. Not only was he brilliant, he spent many years as a teacher, sharing his brilliance with others. He inspired awe, wonder and the dreams of a generation living under the perpetual fear of a nuclear holocaust.

And, most critically, after all the ‘sporting heroes’ and vacuous celebrities of today have passed, Armstrong will be remembered—forever.

Humanity will take more steps towards the stars. I don’t say that just out of hope—I say it out of certainty. Maybe, one day within our lifetimes, mere mortals like you and I will be able to go to space. Right now, that’s a dream, but the work of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and everyone in the Space Race made those dreams move a tiny step closer to reality.

What is certain is that, no matter how far we eventually get, one day, every man, every woman and every child will look back at that very first man, taking that very first step, and they will never forget Neil Armstrong.