Neil Armstrong, the man better known for being the first person to set foot on the moon, died on Saturday. What I didn't know was that he was an actively pushing for more space exploration. When NASA's plans to return to the moon were cancelled, "Armstrong was so dismayed that, in the final years of his life, he gave up his cherished privacy to voice frequent and loud criticism of the decision."
Armstrong's opposition embarrassed the Obama administration but made no difference. The death of one of NASA's greatest heroes highlights the sharp difference between the NASA of today and the agency that sent Armstrong to the moon eight years after President Kennedy announced the breathtakingly ambitious goal to journey to the lunar surface. Today, NASA has no spaceship to deliver the nation's astronauts into space, instead cadging rides with the Russians. And plans for more human exploration of the solar system are nebulous and unpopular, experts say.
"There was a sense in the Space Age of the 1960s and 1970s that all things were possible, and Neil symbolized that," says Roger Launius of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "The world's a little darker place today than it was."
Great Armstrong Obituary in The Economist, showcasing just what a tough guy he was:
Indeed, the popular image of the "right stuff" possessed by the astronaut corps -- the bravery, the competitiveness, the swaggering machismo -- was never the full story. The symbol of the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, where Armstrong spent years testing military jets, is a slide rule over a stylised fighter jet. In an address to America's National Press Club in 2000, Armstrong offered the following self-portrait: "I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow."
He had an engineer's reserve, mixed with a natural shyness. Even among the other astronauts, not renowned for their excitability, Armstrong was known as the "Ice Commander". Mike Collins, one of Armstrong's crew-mates on the historic moon mission, liked his commander but mused that "Neil never transmits anything but the surface layer, and that only sparingly." In one famous incident, Armstrong lost control of an unwieldy contraption nicknamed the "Flying Bedstead" that was designed to help astronauts train for the lunar landing. Ejecting only seconds before his craft hit the ground and exploded, Armstrong dusted himself off and coolly went back to his office for the rest of the day, presumably to finish up some paperwork.
The above image is from the Wikipedia entry on Neil Armstrong.