Monday, August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong And What NASA Means

Neil Armstrong passed away over the weekend, as ABC reports:

Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who became first to walk on the moon as commander of Apollo 11, has died at the age of 82, his family said today. Armstrong had heart surgery several weeks ago, and a statement from his family said he died following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.

Neil Armstrong Dead; Apollo 11 Astronaut Was First on Moon

"First On The Moon" just about says it all, I think. The story shows a photo of him in his youth, with his space suit on about to go to the Moon. For a man who took that dangerous, unprecedented journey, and who had been a test pilot and a combat pilot before that, it's hard to imagine a more anti-climatic death than complications from heart surgery at age 82. James Fallows sums Armstrong's life up this way:

Before he had been: a small town Ohio boy; an Eagle Scout; a certified pilot as of age 15; an aerospace engineer; a naval aviator who flew combat missions in Korea; a test pilot who was in the X-15 among many dozens of aircraft types he eventually flew; and a pilot and commander on two Gemini missions.

Neil Armstrong

For a man who was famous for not wanting fame, he managed to find quite a bit of it, and he found it by doing remarkable things. Going to the Moon might be considered just one of many in Armstrong's life.

Maybe something else that speaks about that accomplishment comes from, of all places, a hobby site. After a long description of all the things he did to take a thirty-plus year old model kit and turn it into this diorama, a Canadian modeler named Pete Malaguti wrote:

I have wanted to build these models for over 30 years ... and finally had the time and references to do it. I'm just getting into this hobby and thanx to sites like ARC I have learned an enormous amount. Now, I'm just starting to put all that observational knowledge to use ... and I'm having a blast!

1/48 Revell Monogram Apollo 15 Lunar Module

In that same day's articles at Aircraft Resource Center, there are other articles about models of the various Apollo machines and missions. (Sadly, there are no permalinks there for individual days.) In addition to Pete Malaguti, there are also articles by someone with a United Kingdom e-mail address, and one from a young modeler from Poland, for whom a model of Armstrong's Apollo 11 Lunar Module was her second model project.

When I look at those dioramas, it's hard to imagine taking that trip now, even though it would probably be easier than it was back then. It still sounds like being totally isolated in the middle of nowhere, with any one of a number of things that could happen that would result in a slow, lingering death. The astronauts who took those trips knew this. They were not stupid people - they knew what they were getting into, and they went anyway. The scientists, engineers, and technicians who designed the machines knew this as well, and they overcame the handicap of having never done such a thing before by ingenuity, trial, and error.

I've written before about the challenge of getting to the Moon, and what it implies for us as a nation. But something we should contemplate now is what this event meant for how the rest of the world sees us. When a great many people in the rest of the world think of the United States, one of the things that comes to mind is "they went to the Moon". Only three weeks ago, NASA landed another probe on Mars, a feat that is so rare most people can't name any other country that's done it. NASA is a visible symbol of what we're capable of doing, both from a technical and human perspective. NASA sends probes to other planets, and, in contrast to every other country or group of countries that have tried this, the exceptional NASA mission is the one that fails. That's not to say that we're better than those other guys, but it says something about what NASA has accomplished - something that very few others have.

Yet NASA's budget is a tiny fraction of what we spend on our military these days. We get so much return from that investment from the technical spin-offs, the scientific knowledge gained, and the prestige we gain that it's hard to imagine why the reverse isn't true. Yet I suspect next year we will once again be told that it's an unnecessary expense, while we just have to have more manned fighters, brigade combat teams, and aircraft carriers to defend ourselves from terrorists.

I've made this point before, but when you look at our priorities as expressed in our nation's budget, it's not hard to understand why we seem to be stymied by issues that previous generations of Americans would have taken care of before lunch time.

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