Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, has died in America, some weeks after heart surgery.
He leaves no hero photos, facing the camera, of that momentous day on 20 July 1969, after arriving with colleague Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, on the silent silver world under a black sky that they walked upon after leaving the Eagle, the Apollo 11 lunar excursion module.
Like Hillary on Everest, Armstrong held the camera. It is Tenzing Norgay we see standing atop the world’s highest peak, under a cobalt blue sky, just as it is Aldrin who stands on the surface of the moon, and stares forward in time to unborn generations of humans in a set of images that are forever the most iconic of the first space age.
We only see Armstrong’s back as Aldrin, in the final minutes of their excursion, took a panoramic set of images which includes the first moon man preparing to climb back into the LEM.
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Armstrong and Aldrin are among the 24 Apollo astronauts who flew to the moon, of which 12, two each on the six missions that made landings, descended from lunar orbit to its surface.
Of all the peoples of the earth, only they have seen the far side of the moon with their own eyes, and the planet earth as a globe.
The surviving cadre of Apollo moon men is now very old, with only eight still living after the deaths of James Irwin (1991) Alan Shepard (1998) and Pete Conrad (1999) preceding that of Armstrong overnight.
The youngest of the moon walkers, Charles Duke, on the Apollo 16 mission, is 76, and the last man to leave the lunar surface, Eugene Cernan, on Apollo 17, is 78.
Armstrong’s passing will bring back billions of individual memories of the moment that he stepped out of the Eagle for those of us alive at the time. The flights, between 1968 if we start with Apollo 8 (which orbited the moon for the first time) and 1972, when the final flight lifted off from the Taurus-Littrow valley, were all telecast live.
If you were in the right place, you could see men on the moon on your television screen, which was still black and white in Australia, and then step outside and look at the moon, and comprehend that they were there, and that you were part of a generation in which we as a species, had ventured beyond our planetary confines for the first time.
It is more than likely that those of us alive when Apollos 11 to 17 went to the moon will not be around when humans return to the lunar surface. Some of us may see manned missions to rendezvous with asteroids that have reasonably accessible orbits, and astonishingly complex robotic spacecraft are already on their way to touch more comets, more asteroids, more minor planets and study the giant outer planets and their multitudes of moons as well. There are plenty of interesting things happenings in space, but there is nothing occurring like the Apollo spectacles when it comes to direct human involvement, nor even under active funding to a specified goal or timetable, by any of the space powers.
But as Armstrong told this reporter, and many others who have interviewed him, he was not frustrated or impatient with the subsequent pace of space exploration. He understood the exceptional, if less heroic, achievements of space scientists since the Apollo missions, and as he quietly mentioned on a number of occasions, there was only ever going to be one first man on the moon, even if he held the camera and never thought to stand in front of it.