Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Eagle Has Departed...

A simultaneous pang went thru an entire generation of late born -baby boomers yesterday when word came down that Astronaut Neil Armstrong, The First Man To Walk On The Moon, had died at the age of 82.
Maybe it is the way we found out, while cruising the internet more than likely, we were robbed of that "where were you when you found out Neil Armstrong had died" moment.
Ah but Neil was something special even for a US Astronaut, he had a real disconnect from the global reach of his own enduring fame, a tendency he shares with some of the other class acts like Ted Williams  or perhaps Bob Dylan.
And it is that very disconnect that kept fresh his fame even as others lapsed into decline, personal or public embarrassment or self parody.
Armstrong had self control, self possession, self mastery for better or worse, others may have seen it as affectlessness but Neil was unique sui generis among engineers.
Thru it all, Neil kept quiet, spoke to what he knew, taught, wrote, got divorced, got remarried and somehow remained true to that mysterious Great Society Astro-Mojo...It is literally The Zen that is past all  reckoning of Tom Wolfe's bumptious The Right Stuff.
Let us also remember that NASA was a public institution with something akin to a sense of humor in the 1960's, they sent to the moon a strangely eclectic crew on Apollo Eleven, A Catholic (Michael Collins), a Lay Protestant Deacon (Buzz Aldrin) alleged agnostic (Armstrong).
It is like the hook to a Morey Amsterdam routine "So a Catholic, a Protestant and an Agnostic flew to the moon and the Catholic sez...".
Ah but world broke that agnostic's heart, his two year old daughter died of a brain tumor in 1962, some say Neil and his wife never got over it.
I sometimes think that a near disaster likely put Armstrong on the short list for the moon, his first space flight, Gemini Eight had to be aborted when a stuck thruster threatened to tumble the space capsule into oblivion. Keeping the pilot's adage "don't screw the pooch" uppermost in his fertile noggin, Armstrong and co-pilot David Scott tapped their re-entry fuel supply and got home safely.
Armstrong never turned a hair during the crisis in orbit thus his affectless demeanor probably got him to the moon ahead of guys who flew perfect flights.
In that picture up there I see an inscrutable Mona Lisa quality, you'd never know he'd just spent two full hours walking on the moon, he looks like he just finished mowing the lawn or something.
Sui generis indeed.

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