Neil Armstrong and American Exceptionalism

On July 20, 1969, I and my family watched riveted at the television screen as Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and walked across the surface of the moon.  Yesterday, Mr. Armstrong passed away at age 82.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

With those words, President John F. Kennedy launched what would be known as the “space race.”  It was just six weeks prior to his May 25, 1961 speech, that America was digesting the shock of  the Russian feat of Vostok I with Yuri Gagarin claiming the title as the first man in space.  And yet, it was not inconceivable to us, as a nation, that we could win that race and put a man on the moon.

Neil Armstrong (NASA Archive)

During the 60’s and decades to follow, we watched numerous successful US rocket launches, coupled with their tragedies, and near mis-steps as chronicled in the popular movie, “Apollo 13.”  We were proud of our astronauts, our technology, our NASA geeks, as we watched an incredible five more manned lunar landings.  But the one name more associated with America’s proudest moment in space is Neil Armstrong.

Neil Armstrong shunned publicity through the years.  Much like the members of the “the greatest generation,” he preferred to live a quiet life and did not speak of his achievements until much later in life in his authorized biography, First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, published in 2005.  However, in 2010, Armstrong joined his astronaut colleague, Eugene Cernan, as they spoke before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capital Hill.  There, Armstrong strongly denounced the Obama Administration’s scrapping of the Constellation program which would have returned manned space flights to the moon in 2020, in favor of a program that would allow a crewed mission to an asteroid by 2025 and a manned mission to Mars by the 2030’s.  In his testimony, Armstrong said, “these are vastly different plans and choosing the proper path is vital to America’s continued space leadership.”

The term, “American exceptionalism,” has been widely used of late as an attempt to define what makes America special among nations.  Neil Armstrong personified that exceptionalism, along with his colleagues who dedicated themselves to America’s pre-eminence in a realm little understood by so many of us.  In only eight years and fifty-six days after Kennedy spoke those words, Armstrong was walking on the moon.

Our children have their heroes and heroines today, from football and baseball legends to our recent Olympians.   But for this author, the men and women who dared to turn the comic book and “Lost in Space” stories of space travel into reality, they, are in a class by themselves.  Sitting in a small capsule atop a rocket tip, or atop a rocket booster about to hurl them into the infinity of space, our astronauts made it look so easy.  So easy, that today, space shuttle and rocket launches, merit merely a sound bite in the network news.

American exceptionalism…d**n right.

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