I spent an afternoon with Neil Armstrong in July 1985, when I was 10 years old. He was my childhood hero. The day I met him was, up to that point, the biggest day of my life. So it has been particularly poignant for me to learn of his death earlier today.
Back then I was really into — or should I say, obsessed with — space flight and astronomy. And I had some nerd cred. My parents gave me an awesome telescope and I was among the first in my community to spot Halley’s Comet when it came around. I went to Space Camp the summer after Challenger exploded. I built and launched model rockets. I read every book about astronomy in our local library. Inspired by Gus Grissom and by Charlie Walker, NASA astronauts who hailed from my county in Indiana, I was set on being an astrophysicist and traveling into space one day. That determination was what made me resilient (or maybe just oblivious) to the jeers I got when I wore my blue NASA flight suit to school one day in fifth grade.
My parents’ good friend Ned Boyer was a fraternity brother of Neil Armstrong’s at the Phi Delt house at Purdue back in the 50’s. Ned and Neil had stayed in touch over the years, and when Ned saw how much I loved space flight and astronomy, and how I idolized the NASA astronauts, he arranged for our families to travel to Lebanon, Ohio to meet Neil.
We met Neil and his then-wife Janet at the historic Golden Lamb restaurant in Lebanon. We sat at a long table for lunch, with Neil at one head of the table, and me at the corner of the table, at his right hand. I asked him the battery of simple-minded questions that a 10 year old geeky kid would ask, like how he would describe the dust on the moon as his boot sank in. I remember also asking him about his and David Scott’s emergency undocking from the Agena during Gemini 8 — a topic on which I imagine he was interrogated less frequently than Apollo 11. In the years since meeting him, I’ve often reflected on what questions I would ask him from a mature perspective, like how does one deal with the profundity of the singular accomplishment of being the only human in the history of the world to ever have the distinction of being the first to step foot on a celestial body other than the Earth.
After lunch we decided to go see the local YMCA which at that time was either new or newly-renovated. I’m not sure of the details, but I know Neil was involved in that project somehow. Here’s the awesome part of that — I rode in the back seat of his beige station wagon while he drove us there. I remember thinking to myself how incredible it was that I was being transported at that moment by the Commander of the Eagle — the very person who uttered those eternal words, “that’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” We hung out there at the YMCA for awhile longer. That’s where the picture of him and me you see above was taken.
Neil’s family issued a statement earlier today requesting that we should “honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty.” To say he was modest is an understatement. Though he was one of the most famous people in the world — and indeed one of the most important people in all of history — he never sought to capitalize on his celebrity.
Today we lost one of the most important historical figures of our age. I put Neil Armstrong’s significance in the same category as that of Christopher Columbus. Until today we were all contemporaries of the man who accomplished one of the most meaningful things ever. Now he precedes us. Godspeed, Neil!