From the Archives: Requiescat In Pace, Neil Armstrong

This was first published here, shortly after Commander Armstrong’s death in 2012, and we re-post it now in honor of the one year anniversary of his death, last Sunday.

If there is one monument to the arrogance of the modern press, it could be their insistence on botching the most important quote of the 20th Century, and if there is a second-most monumental testament it could be their total failure to report that the most earth-shattering statement of the 21st Century was made by the same man.

You see, the scratchy audio from the Moon, in 1969, of Neil Armstrong saying that he made a small step was a poor record of the first words uttered by a human man standing on another body that was not the Earth.  What he rehearsed beforehand, what he actually said,  what made logical sense, and what he reported later, were the words “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”  What the press heard was the statement without the ‘a’.  Armstrong insisted afterward that static must have obscured the ‘a’, but it didn’t matter.  The men and women of journalism decided, in their wisdom, that they had heard and reported the statement without the ‘a’, so that’s what he must have said.  It didn’t matter that it didn’t make any sense.  It didn’t matter that later audio analysis detected evidence of the missing ‘a’ in the recordings.  They had spoken, and for nearly 40 years, so it was.  [For an amusing comparison, please observe that in 2013, the Associated Press immediately corrected President Obama’s embarrassing statement about 3 Atlantic port cities being “Gulf” ports.]

Like many of the children and young adults who watched the Apollo 11 landing, Armstrong was a hero to me.  I found it a little disturbing that his words about the events of July, 1969 seemed to make so little difference.  I was not the only one who idolized Armstrong, obviously.  Yesterday’s Jerusalem Post mentions Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was 14 when he watched Armstrong’s flight and eventually died in space aboard the space shuttle Columbia during its disastrous final reentry.  Many eventual NASA astronauts were likewise inspired by Armstrong’s flight.  I was never seriously on the astronaut track, but I spent many years in Armstrong’s earthly footsteps, getting the same University degrees, both of us spending too much time at Grissom Hall (renamed for Hoosier Gus Grissom after Armstrong graduated, of course) at Purdue before it was torn down to make room for the new Armstrong Hall, which newly houses the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, built in 2007.  We both belonged to the aerospace honorary fraternity Sigma Gamma Tau there, and spent time at Purdue in the same rooms with Gene Cernan (whose Texas ranch is coincidentally very near Texan59’s) and Jim Lovell and other astronauts, discussing the future of aerospace with other space-minded engineers.  Not a year has passed since 1982, when I first met my wife at an Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, that I have not visited family within a few miles of Armstrong’s farm near Lebanon.  He has always loomed large in my awareness, though he is gone now, but I don’t mean to make this about me.

You know who does want to make Armstrong’s death about himself?  Barack Obama.  Check out this photograph of Barack contemplating the Moon.  This is how he chose to honor Armstrong on the occasion of his death.  By making it about Barack.  Mike Flynn has a nice piece at Breitbart about the latest Barack cameo.  If only Neil had been as accomplished as the One.  But Neil was never pResident, and he never earned the Nobel prize for anything.  Neil should consider himself lucky to have had his few minutes of fame and his big misquote.

But that leads me to Armstrong’s second big quote.  The Jerusalem Post article yesterday mentions that when Armstrong visited Israel in 2007, he came to console Ilan Ramon’s widow, Rona.  The New Republic notes that he also visited Jerusalem to take a few steps that he had anticipated all his life.

The American astronaut was taken on a tour of the old city of Jerusalem by Israeli archeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the TempleMount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there.  “These are the steps that lead to the temple,” Ben-Dov told him, “so He must have walked here many times.”  Armstrong then asked Ben-Dov if those were the original stairs and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were indeed.  “So Jesus stepped right here,” Armstrong asked. “That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.  To which Armstrong, the devout Christian, replied, “I have to tell you, I am more excited stepping on these stones than when I was stepping on the moon.”  The secular world remembers Armstrong as, variously, an aerospace engineer, a university professor, a Navy fighter pilot and, of course, as the first man in history to peer back at Earth from the surface of the moon.  But those who were closest to the famous astronaut – his widow, Carol, his two sons, Eric and Mark (from a previous marriage), his brother and sister, and other survivors – remember Neil Armstrong as a man of faith.

I find this last bit about Armstrong to be the most interesting, and I always have.  Like most of us, the first man on the Moon was no superhuman giant.  Like many of us, Neil Armstrong knew anxiety, weakness, motion-sickness and humiliation.  I won’t go into details, but it’s true.  Still, when there was pressure, and certain death loomed, he responded calmly and deliberately with the certainty of an unshakable faith.  During the ascent of the Saturn V first stage of the Apollo 11 flight, on a mission which had never been done before and in which he was convinced they had a 50% chance of surviving, his heart rate never soared past 110 bpm.  Mine has hit 200 in engineering meetings.  He was chosen for the command of Apollo 11 because of this, although the reason given was his “lack of ego.”  There was a reason why his ego was in check, and there was a reason why ice water ran in his veins.  He was saving his real excitement for later.  Just ask Meir Ben-Dov.

Additional Note About Armstrong’s Widow, Carol:  When Carol Held Knight Armstrong was widowed a few days ago, it was the second time in her life, and I think that fact makes some of the irresponsible gossip about her particularly cruel and despicable.  She certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it, and she must be horrified by it.  Overall, the quality of the news coverage of Neil’s life and death has been mixed with some of the better stories, ironically, coming from over seas.  But some stories, including the Wikipedia entry on Neil, have made a veiled implication that Carol was somehow a home-wrecker, and that by meeting Armstrong at a golf breakfast in 1992 when he was technically still married, she caused the dissolution of his 38-year marriage to college sweetheart Janet who is the mother of his three children.

The unhappy facts of the first Armstrong marriage are not really in dispute, and it was Janet who left Neil in 1989 after simply growing tired, according to friend and fellow astronaut Gene Cernan, of “being Mrs. Neil Armstrong.”  Her determination to separate was not a secret, and she complained bitterly of Neil’s silence and emotional detachment, especially regarding the death of their daughter at a young age.

The simple fact is that friends fretted over Armstrong’s deep depression for three years after Jan left, and only in 1992 did mutual friends Paul and Sally Christiansen attempt to set up Neil and Carol by arranging the golf breakfast where they met.  Eventually they made further contact and became friends, but it’s no surprise that it was only after marriage was discussed that plans were made to finalize the end of the marriage with Janet.  For some of the details and related humor, begin reading on page 643 of James Hansen’s book “First Man:…”  The whole situation, while regrettable as divorce always is, was nothing like the tabloid implications and judgmental smugness that have been showing up in otherwise reputable news sites this week.  Carol gave Neil a new start, and she deserves better than lies.

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About GruntOfMonteCristo

Fearless and Devout Catholic Christian First, Loving Husband and Father Second, Pissed-Off Patriot Third, Rocket Engineer Dork Last.
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