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Neil Armstrong’s sublime silence

Over the holiday I had a chance to watch Ron Howard’s elegant documentary about the US-USSR race to the moon, a film that interviewed nearly all those who still live and walked on the moon.  All, that is, but Neil Armstrong, the very first human being to step foot on the lunar surface.  If human beings are still around in 5000 years, and barring a catastrophic erasure of human history, Neil Armstrong’s name will still be known and his serendipitous selection to be the first astronaut to step outside the lunar module at 2:56 UTC July 21, 1969, will still be celebrated as an astonishing feat of corporate (by which I simply mean massively collective) scientific enterprise, and the one line first spoken from the moon’s surface – “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” – will still be recited.  Since more than two-thirds of the world’s population had not yet been born in 1969, perhaps my thought is a naive one; I hope not.

Armstrong has been accused of being a recluse (historian Douglas Brinkley famously described him as “our nation’s most bashful Galahad”), but that descriptor doesn’t quite work.  After all, now 78 years old, Armstrong followed up his service to NASA by doing an ASO tour with Bob Hope and then a 45-day “Giant Leap” tour that included stops in Soviet Russia.  For thirteen months he served as Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics at DARPA, and then taught at the University of Cincinnati for eight years.  More recently he has served as a technical consultant on two panels convened to report on space disasters (in the aftermath of the Apollo 13 and Challenger explosions; NA vice-chaired the Rogers Commission investigating the latter).  Armstrong has spoken selectively at commemorative events, including at a White House ceremony recalling the 25th anniversary of the moon walk, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of NASA just a couple months ago, and the opening of a new engineering building at Purdue University (his alma mater) named after him in 2007.

So, no, Neil Armstrong is not a recluse in the sense we typically ascribe to monks or the painfully shy.  He is willing to be interviewed (he does seem to be tough on his own performances, which may explain some of his selectivity in accepting offers – after a 60 Minutes profile in which he participated, he gave himself a C-minus).  He gives speeches.  He has been happy to offer commentary on public policy subjects relating to outer space.  But what he has refused to do is endlessly reflect on what he did that July day.  And I admire him for this, not because others who have been forthcoming and talkative about the experience are to be criticized – their stories are compelling and their histories worth recalling and Aldrin and Lovell and the others have been important ambassadors and salesmen for space exploration – but because what Armstrong did, and the event in which he so memorably participated, would be diminished by more talk.

The recognition of this fact is the brilliance of the one line he so famously spoke, which remains a masterfully succinct response to a world historical moment.  Speech was required – the first man to step on the moon had to say something, after all – but too much yammering would have undermined the collective majesty of the moment, and excessive talk after the fact would have done the same.  Can you imagine a thousand years from now school children watching hours upon hours of the alternative, Neil Armstrong in a hundred oral history interviews?  Were you sweating?  Did you burp in your space helmet?  Were your space boots chafing?  As you jumped off the last step did you think you would be swallowed up?  Did you get verklempt?  How do people pee in space?  How did the event compare with taking your marriage vows?  To whom were you dedicating the experience?  Did you hear God’s voice?  If you were, in that moment, a tree, what kind of tree would you have been?

Ugh.  No thank you.  I don’t want to know the infinite and microscopic details and I don’t think they matter one whit.  The deeply powerful impression created by watching that grainy black and white event on a small television, for me as a child three days short of my eighth birthday, remains indelible – pay attention!  watch this!  look out the window – do you see the moon? – those people on the television are actually up there – one small step…  It was late at night (close to 11:00 EST in the United States) and I was getting tired and grumpy – why weren’t we going home yet? – but when the moment came I and the other 450 million estimated to have also watched the landing live (some estimates range as high as one billion) sat completely absorbed by what we were seeing and held our breaths to see later if the landing vehicle would escape the moon’s atmosphere.

And Neil Armstrong, at some deeply personal level, understands all this in a way that may be best analogized to the disappearance of musicians and celebrities who leave the stage and never reappear again.  In the television context, think Johnny Carson or Lucille Ball, who knew they could only subvert the quality of their life’s work in public by agreeing to appear in “comeback specials” and all the rest.  (This is why DVDs with nonstop director’s commentary are so often, in my view, a terrible mistake – let the work make its own impression.)  And so Armstrong, since 1994 or so, has stopped signing autographs (he found out they were simply being sold for profit and decided he didn’t want to be involved, paradoxically of course only increasing their value).  He also hasn’t been arrested shoplifting or been accused of harassment or even, so far as I know, been caught speeding, any of which would also have diminished his most public visible moment of achievement in the space program.

In the words of one writer, “Neil Armstrong achieved one of the greatest goals in human spaceflight but then did not go on to proselytize the faith…  For True Believers in the Cause, this is apostasy, and they resent him for it.”  Thomas Mallon, writing in the New Yorker, seemed to criticize Armstrong (the implicit assumption was that he’s too litigious) because he sued his barber – turns out the guy was cutting his hair and then selling it online.  I think Armstrong was right:  the hair thing was cheap and exploitive and diminished the work.

When Armstrong agreed to participate in the writing of a biography, which appeared in 2006 (James Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, Simon and Schuster), there was a lot of speculation that at last its subject was prepared to go onto the couch, if only to debunk the stories that implied there was something creepy about his reluctance to talk all the time to reporters.  In reading the book I am struck by the good choice Armstrong made in settling on a collaborator – Hansen’s book is saturated with information (almost four hundred pages before we even get to Apollo 11), but the information is crisply organized. Hansen refuses the temptation to plant thoughts, speculate endlessly about feelings, and so on, and if pressed Armstrong to undergo psychoanalysis that doesn’t come across in the narrative.  Some have criticized the short final section (covering the years post-moon landing) as less interesting, and others have found fault in the fact that the book reveals Armstrong’s occasionally interpersonal coldness and the toll his career took on his family life.  Only in reading that Armstrong didn’t take souvenirs on the mission for his two sons did I start to think this is too much information.  But I found myself wondering if his notorious interpersonal coolness is also the reason he made a perfect astronaut – ice in the veins, cool under pressure, and all that.

Neil Armstrong is no Superman.  He was one of a thousand military men who might have served as the public face of the mammoth and expensive engineering triumph that achieved spaceflight, and had he come down with the flu it would probably be Buzz Aldrin we most remember today.  And so my point is not to celebrate the relative silence because it creates a mythology.  To the contrary, what I admire about Armstrong’s long refusal to be daily feted and interrogated about July 21 is that as he recedes, the work is allowed to dominate the scene.  In the eloquence of his one first sentence spoken from the lunar surface, and in his silence on that experience since, the sublime accomplishment of this supreme national effort is best recollected.

Oh, and one other thing:  Armstrong donated the royalties from the biography to Purdue, to be used to build a space program archive there.

Perfect.


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