When I heard the sad news of Neil Armsrong’s death via NBC‘s Twitter feed, it really hit home that the only generation to have walked on the moon won’t be with us forever.
Many of the elite Apollo astronauts, including first American in space Alan Shephard, have already departed and only two of the Mercury Seven – immortalised in the 1983 biopic The Right Stuff – survive (although John Glenn continues to bat a cracking innings at the age of 91 and even managed to get into the record books as the oldest person in space when he flew on the space shuttle at the age of 77, as well as being the only individual to fly in both the Mercury and shuttle programmes. What a life!).
Even relative youngster and first American woman in space Sally Ride passed away a short time ago. Sad times indeed.
If we ignore the crackpot conspiracy theorists who claim that it was all an elaborate hoax (as, thankfully, the scientific world does), the moon landing in 1969 can be considered one of the most significant moments in 20th century history.
It’s safe to say that I’m a bit of a space nerd. I own mission patches from all of the Apollo flights, my favourite mug is emblazoned with Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz’s memorable book title “Failure is Not an Option” and I got up at 6am on a Monday morning a few weeks back to witness the Mars Curiosity rover touching down on the Red Planet.
I recently visited the the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. where I got the chance to see the Apollo 11 command module as well as a huge selection of artefacts from the mission including spacesuits, and the Hasselblad camera used by Michael Collins to take photos of the lunar module.
In short, I would’ve loved to have been around to witness such an important moment in the history of science and exploration – my mum has always talked fondly of staying up until the small hours to watch the moon landing with my gran.
Although most well-known for his history-making role as Commander of the Apollo 11 mission and being the first human being to set foot on the moon, making him the first of only 12 men to do so, Armstrong also flew in Nasa’s previous programme, as Command Pilot of the Gemini 8, making him one of an elite band of astronauts to have flown in more than one space programme.
Second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin paid tribute to Armstong, saying:
“My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history.
“I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing. Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit”.
Last year I wrote about the the end of the Space Shuttle programme, which was canned after 30 years to make way for the Constellation programme, in which the Americans were set to go back to non-reusable spacecraft.
Following the NASA Authorization Act 2010, this plan was ditched with Nasa not expected to launch its own spaceflights again until at least 2016. In the meantime, American astronauts will be hitching rides to the International Space Station with the Russians, for the measly sum of around $63 million per seat.
We can only hope that Nasa picks up where it left off in terms of manned spaceflight. Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it’s dangerous, but in the spirit of human endeavour, it would be a crime not to invest in further exploration.
While the future of spaceflight appears hesitant, one thing’s for certain – whatever “the right stuff” is, Armstrong had it.