These cartoons from Robert Ariail and Bill Day remind me that I neglected to post about our loss of Neil Armstrong over the weekend.
In part, that was because I knew so little about him. Other astronauts — some of them, anyway — had such large personas by comparison. John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Pete Conrad, for instance. What we didn’t know about those guys before was added and amplified by The Right Stuff. Yet Wolfe only had one vivid anecdote in his book that I recall about Armstrong — and it was about what a neutral, bland, machine-like personality he had:
The subtext of that anecdote, of course, was that Armstrong was no Chuck Yeager.
“… scarcely a line or a feature in his face that you could remember” seemed to describe this hero of the space race. I always sort of assumed he was chosen for his very anonymity, making him an American Everyman. It bugged me a bit at the time that after military pilots had paved the way into space up to that point, a civilian got to take the big First Step — it hardly seemed fair. But even in that, he was generic — he saved NASA from having to pick between Navy, Air Force and Marines for the big honor.
Then there was his name, evoking Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.
But finally, the fact that he was so anonymous, that (officially) anyway he was just chosen because he was the guy in line who had built up the requisite experience, emphasized the great thing about NASA — to a communitarian, anyway. It was always about the team (if you doubt it, go watch “Apollo 13” again), from the glory boys atop the rockets to the geeks in Mission Control to the lowliest worker on an assembly line making the humblest part of the capsule. Stretched just a bit, the team included all Americans (at the very least, we paid for the trip), and ultimately all humanity.
He was the first, but the rest of us took that step with him.