Reporter's Note: I write a letter to President Obama every day. Today it is about the passing of astronaut, Neil Armstrong.
Dear Mr. President,
Neil Armstrong spoke at a dinner I attended a few years ago here in D.C. An acquaintance who left the new business for work in the satellite and space imaging industry invited me to attend, and it was an evening packed with expectation.
As you probably know, the first man on the moon may have liked standing among those distant craters, but in his later years in particular he did not often appear before earthly audiences. When time for the big introduction came, you could see everyone in the room craning to get a look at the reclusive Mr. Armstrong. He was professional, polite, well-spoken, and his speech lasted about 20 minutes or so.
The subject was the father of modern rocketry, Robert Goddard, and Armstrong's passion for the subject was clear. He spoke with intense admiration of Goddard's ground breaking experiments. He explained how those early efforts became the building blocks for many of the much more advanced systems we know today. He praised Goddard as a genuine pioneer... a hero, if you will... for the space exploration community.
What he did not mention, not even once, was his experience of being the first man on the moon. No talk of "one giant leap". Not a word about Apollo, or the dicey landing, or the earth rising on the lunar horizon. There was, at best, one veiled reference to the notion that he, Armstrong, had once been somehow involved in the space business. Other than that, any casual listener who did not recognize him might have suspected the man at the podium was a history professor, or perhaps a science buff.
After the speech, I went backstage and said hello. I shook his hand, told him my elder daughter is interested in space, and he wished her luck.
It is hard to imagine someone who literally rose to such heights, seeming so reticent to talk about it. Maybe he just went over it so much in the days right after it happened, that he grew weary of the whole carnival. Perhaps there is something inherently exhausting in knowing that you have done something before any other living soul, and that now it will define your life forever.
But having heard him speak with such commitment about the need to remember the work of Goddard, is suspect part of the equation is also that he realized, either right away or later in life, that it is the work that matters... not the individual. The greatness of a scientist, an astronaut, a politician, or anyone else, lies not in their glory, but rather in the lasting value of their work. It does not matter, ultimately, if we remember the man. We will all be forgotten, given time, even you. What matters is that we do good work for the future, so that people may benefit long after we pass to dust, and our names fade into the cosmos.
Farewell, Mr. Armstrong.
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