published Saturday, September 1st, 2012

The end of a great voyage

'MONKEYS? You think a monkey knows he's sittin' on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys, they know that, see? Well, I'll tell you something. It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV."

That was actor Sam Shepard, channeling the spirit of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager in the 1983 movie (and Tom Wolfe's knock-out of a book) "The Right Stuff." It seems somebody on Chuck Yeager's crew was trying to make the old man feel better about his not getting in on this new astronaut program, and made the mistake of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

One of the astronauts who would come along a few years later would become the first man to walk on the moon. He didn't make it into the movie version of the book, which was probably just fine with him. He never cared much for the limelight. He was an engineer, not a politician.

He did have the right stuff, though. So much so that he'll have a role in the history of man's great voyages of discovery alongside names like Magellan, Columbus and Lindbergh, his boyhood hero. What he won't be known for is making a spectacle of himself. Or even a scene. Or spouting off about politics. He just did his job. And when it was finished, he did something that would shock today:

He didn't write a book. He didn't run for office. He didn't appear on television talk shows to promote himself. Not that he would shrink from the spotlight, any more than he would shrink from duty. When he was called out of retirement in 1986 to help investigate the Challenger disaster, once again he did his job. But it wasn't the job he would become famous for. That assignment would involve just taking a few steps.

A few steps and countless hours of training, thousands of other people facing the consoles of 1969-era computers, and a couple of other pilots named Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Not to mention a host of others down on Earth. And whole teams of physicians and mathematicians and pilots and simulator operators huddled inside a few buildings in Texas and Florida-backed up by a vast industry of American workers.

His achievement would fulfill the promise of a president who'd been gunned down in his prime, but whose words still resonated: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade ... ." — John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962. And so we did, thanks to the American public's willingness, its eagerness, its determination. And its willingness to invest in a great adventure. Perhaps the greatest since Ferdinand and Isabella chose to dip into the royal treasury to back an Italian adventurer who had the crazy idea of sailing west to reach the East.

All of which may explain why this American hero, and very American type, declined to make a big deal of himself, thank you. He told anybody who asked about his being the first of his species to walk on the moon that his little stroll was really the work of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Americans. When he said no to all those who wanted to use his name, it wasn't because he failed to realize the importance of his achievement. It was because he did recognize that he was part of a team — a team of thousands, if not millions. He carried a nation's, and a planet's, hopes with him.

•••

They say that when Apollo 11 lifted off, our engineer's heart rate was, oh, about 110 beats a minute. Or what many of us would have walking around the room. If we were halfway in shape.

For those of a certain age, you will remember just where you were a few days later when you saw the lunar module land on the moon. Hundreds of millions of people gathered around their television sets on July 20, 1969, to watch it. For a suspenseful time, the lunar module, the LM, seemed to be going off-course, and headed for a boulder-strewn crater. The engineer took the controls of the spacecraft and — with alarms going off and fuel running low — put her down himself. The landing was soft, the sigh of relief heard 'round the world.

Houston? Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

Not bad for a man who had motion sickness when he was a kid.

A few hours later, he stepped onto the surface of the moon.

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

Well, that's what he had meant to say. Either he forgot the indefinite article (the "a" before man) or the signal cut out for that second. Close enough for government work.

He planted a flag on the moon. He took some pictures. When the astronauts came back to Earth, they got a hero's welcome. And should have.

The man who took that one giant leap for mankind retired a few years later, having never gone back into space. Not that the country would have let him. His was too important a name to risk. Instead he could start a company that made space equipment. Or hawk coffee machines on television. Or become a U.S. senator.

He did none of those things. Instead, he went to the University of Cincinnati, where he hoped the folks in the aerospace department wouldn't hold it against him that he had only a master's. He was a member in good standing of the pocket-protector, slide-rule generation of American engineers, and he did his job. Whether on the moon or on Earth, he had his feet solidly planted in reality.

•••

Our ever-calm astronaut (b. August 5, 1930, Wapakoneta, Ohio) was the Midwest personified, or certainly its virtues. Cool in emergencies, he was cooler in crises. Among his first transmissions from the lunar surface: "I tell you, we're going to be busy for a minute." Then he went back to enjoying the view. ("It's different, but it's very pretty out here. I suppose they're going to make a big deal of all this.") He himself remained unfazed. Maybe when you've been a combat pilot over Korea, then a test pilot, little things like a lunar flight don't much bother you.

What our engineer/spaceman did after his moon walk was to have a life. He taught classes, he served on corporate boards, and he was appointed to official advisory groups, especially when some operation had gone wrong and needed correcting. The only things that seemed to bother him were government red tape and academic politics. He had better things to do, like kids to raise and grandchildren to enjoy. Now and then he must have passed an elementary school named for him.

He did make the news back in 2010 when he objected to ending the Constellation moon project. But that was unlike him. And he was heard, even if his counsel was not taken. That he would speak up was evidence of how important he thought manned space flight was. He was standing up for what he believed, deeply. Contrary to the passing impression, he was not impassive, just self-controlled. And he was respected to the end of his days, completing his last voyage a week ago today at the age of 82.

He lived long enough to watch rovers making tracks on Mars. What a wonder. Do you think he had mixed emotions about that — proud that man had taken another small step, sorry that the rovers didn't have a human aboard? For he understood that the greatest wonder of all is man himself.

He made the newspapers again over the weekend. His family announced that he'd died in Cincinnati. His name made the obituary pages. And the front pages. We'd mention it here, but he might not like that. And you — and the world — know it anyway.

4
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daytonsdarwin said...

In a time when the term "hero" has been cheapened by overuse and applied to nearly everyone who breathes, Neil Armstrong was a real hero.

This is a wonderful tribute, Drew. Thanks for remembering the man as he was.

September 1, 2012 at 8:51 a.m.
jesse said...

I was under the impression that Yeager turned down the opp.to be an astronaut!! Chuck was an aviator and thought astronauts were just passengers!! BUT all those pioneers were hero's!no doubt about it!!

September 1, 2012 at 9:12 a.m.
rolando said...

Thanks for renewing the memories, Drew. You are the first person I have heard mention the missed "a". He hesitated a bit when saying "for...man". Perhaps that was the failed comm system.

When it was first announced who would be the First Man, I recalled an old radio program I [and thousands of other young boys] listened to every Saturday morning 65-odd years ago -- the adventures of "Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy". Who better to represent those thousands who helped place him there?

Excellent celebration of life, Drew. Excellent.

September 1, 2012 at 9:19 p.m.
rolando said...

Although I didn't know him personally, Chuck Yeager, like so many Top Gun fighter jocks, was heavy in the ego department -- it was and is part of the job description of the truly great ones. Being the first to do any highly dangerous job takes a special kind of man...or woman.

September 1, 2012 at 9:35 p.m.
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