28 August 2012

The man who shot for the moon

Neil Armstrong, astronaut, Purdue alum, and the first man on the moon died Saturday. There's not much I can say about Neil Armstrong that hasn't already been said, more eloquently, by people who knew him or were lucky enough to interact with him at some point. And the link list by Ed Yong is not to be missed -- the truth about his most famous quotes, articles about the man himself, the story of the moon landing, the best obituary on the internet -- it's all there, and worth a look or twenty.
Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon.
Picture by: Callie Leuck

And what comes out of it is that he was a rarity -- a very good man. I think the first man who walked on the moon would be excused a lot of things, but he never had to be excused.

I mentioned that Armstrong was a Purdue alum because it is what he and I have in common. Previously, that hadn't made a huge impact on me personally, but he was the name of names in astronaut lore, and as I mentioned before in my post Starhawk and the Mars Curiosity Rover, Purdue is immensely proud of its astronauts. And I suspect that going to a university where an astronaut speaking on campus is old hat may be somewhat...well, not the typical university experience.

Purdue is best known for being an engineering school, although of course it has many other programs as well.  I wasn't an engineering student, though; I was in the College of Agriculture for two and a half years before officially transferring to the College of Liberal Arts. As an Ag student, I spent most of my time on the Ag campus, south of State Street and the main campus -- physically separated from the rest of the university by traffic. As a LA student, I spent most of my time in the building that housed the Professional Writing department. 

What I'm getting at is that I spent most of my time at the university in more-obscure buildings, in dedicated department computer labs seeing the same relatively-small group of people. I didn't get up to the engineering campus often except for my physics class and recitation, meeting up with my sister (who had the good sense to study engineering), and once for a flash-mob type of thing with my swing-dancing club.

Astronauts on campus wasn't something that was cool to me. Astronauts on campus meant increased foot traffic on the sidewalks, longer lines in the food court, and less available seats to camp and study. At first, I tried to attend some talks out of mild curiosity, but mostly the turnout was so immense it was impossible to get in. (I did get to attend one by Andrew Feustel.)

"Good night, Neil." A picture via the Purdue Alumni Association. This is the statue of Neil Armstrong on the
north side of Purdue's campus, near the Engineering buildings. It depicts Neil Armstrong as a student.
After his death was announced, people left items in tribute to the famous and inspirational alum.
And at some level I had been overexposed to the space program. I'd become jaded. I'd grown up in a world where people had walked on the moon -- firmly in the past. Every third kid wanted to be an astronaut, but I can't recall ever wanting to be an astronaut. I love science fiction, but all the best stories seemed several lifetimes away from fruition. And I realized that the lucky few chosen to be astronauts had to be among the best of the best. So yes, I resented the inspirational posters plastered all over classrooms and school hallways from my fifth to eighth year of schooling as a child. The one I hated the most was one that read "Shoot for the moon...Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars!!"

If you're trying to land on the moon, what good does it do you to land among the stars? You will die. Probably painfully. I don't know if it would be of starvation or oxygen deprivation, but I don't see this ending well if you miss the moon.

Neil Armstrong shot for the moon. I know he would say that it was the product of years of labor of many, many people, and that would be true. But they did shoot for the moon, and damn it they got to the moon. They didn't miss the moon. They didn't land among the stars.

Frankly, as inspirational posters go, that one was a bit of a dud.

But you know what would be awesome? Intentionally landing a bit...further out...than the moon.*
*Hint: like Mars.

In fact, no American has walked on the moon in my lifetime. The last American to walk on the moon was in December 1972, over a decade before I was born. I'd love to see us move to putting a human on Mars in my lifetime. I mean, if we're going to become a serious spacefaring civilization, we need to do more than have a spurt of getting a few dozen people on the moon and then put nobody anywhere new for the following four decades. Amiright?

Maybe we need another space race to inspire us? (First country to Mars wins all the Olympic medals for the next decade! Just to raise the stakes in some healthy competition.)