Radio Freethinker

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Neil Armstrong, Humanist Explorer?

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 1, 2012

When Neil Armstrong died, I began to wonder about his legacy.

For obvious reasons, he has an assured legacy that will no doubt be remembered for a long, long, time. Being the first human on another world is sort of a big deal. The interesting things about Armstrong were some of the lesser known items in his career. For example, the team at NASA that put together the leadership of Apollo 11 was very careful about picking a man who was humble and cool headed. What they did not want was an egotistical, “typical fighter pilot” type guy.

This level handedness of Armstrong could be seen in his nonchalant attitude to everything. When he, along with the rest of the crew of Apollo 11, found out that they would be the team to go to the moon, he reportedly didn’t react at all but just responded with an “okay, let’s get on with it.”

This humble guy image stuck with him throughout his whole life. He was soft spoken and didn’t get involved in politics. Of course, because of his fame, he was constantly approached to endorse political parties and such. His disinterest could even be seen as a recognition of not buying into his own hype. Also, he was deists.

One time he was involved in an accident where his wedding ring got stuck in the wheel of a grain truck and tore off the end of his finger. He picked up the severed finger and packed it in ice and (most likely) calmly walked into the hospital like nothing happened and had it reattached.

His death comes so soon after Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars that we can’t help but wonder about the future of space exploration by humans. Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that the first human piloted craft to Mars should be called the Armstrong.

When we consider all of his accomplishments and his amazing legacy and the fact that he remained such a humble man his whole life, I don’t think I’m wrong in suggesting, Neil was in a class in his own as an explorer. What I mean by that is when you think of the other explorers in human history, Columbus, Cortez, Magellan, I mean, these are the people who really only come to close to Armstrong’s accomplishments, but you look at those men and what they stood for and arguably, the horrible things they did as explorers… Armstrong represented such a departure from that mold.

He was in many ways what I think we as skeptics and humanists would like in an explorer. Not there to conquer but truly to explore and advance the frontiers of humanity.

The Apollo missions were for the most part a race to the moon with the Soviets, an attempt to be the first to plant their flag and do a victory lap while the loser seethed quiet indignities. Armstrong, despite being the man at the front of the parade, seemed totally disinterested in the pageantry. At least based on what we know of the guy, Armstrong didn’t see the moon landing as a solely American accomplishment. It wasn’t about extending the reach of a nation into space or claiming territory, but an attempt to go somewhere humanity hadn’t been.

And unlike his predecessors like Columbus, he wasn’t there to conquer. I think it was a turning point in our history of exploration.

When removing Armstrong from the context of the Cold War and space race, what we are left with is a humble man who accomplished something that the whole world could share.


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