Neil Armstrong passed away this weekend, just shy of his 82nd birthday, and the world marked the passing of a key figure in history, an icon for anyone who ever looked to the stars and tried to locate the craters on the moon with a telescope.
When I think of Armstrong I think of his fame and status in the context of the history of mankind. In Michael H. Hart’s book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Hart includes President John F. Kennedy on his list, along with the likes of Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Gutenberg, Galileo, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Muhammed, Edison, Michaelangelo and Beethoven.” Why Kennedy? Hart writes:
“A thousand years from now, neither the Peace Corps, nor the Alliance for Progress, nor the Bay of Pigs is likely to be remembered. Nor will it seem very important what Kennedy’s policies were concerning taxes or civil rights legislation. John F. Kennedy has been placed on this list for one reason only: he was the person who was primarily responsible for instituting the Apollo Space Program. Providing that the human race has not blown itself to smithereens in the intervening time, we can be fairly sure that even 5,000 years from now, our trip to the moon will still be regarded as a truly momentous event, one of the great landmarks of human history.”
Hart goes on to clarify his position:
“I will discuss the importance of the moon program a little further on. First, however, let me deal with the question of whether John F. Kennedy is really the man who deserves the most credit for the trip. Should we not instead credit Neil Armstrong or Edwin Aldrin, the first men who actually set foot on the moon? If we were ranking people on the basis of enduring fame, that might be the correct thing to do, for I rather suspect that Neil Armstrong is more likely to be remembered 5,000 years from now than John F. Kennedy.”
Armstrong’s family issued a statement: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
On Armstrong’s passing, President Barack Obama stated:
“Neil was among the greatest of American heroes–not just of his time, but of all time. When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable–that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten. Today, Neil’s spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown–including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space. That legacy will endure–sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step.”
In the year 2000, Armstrong was quoted as saying, “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer, and I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
The barely noticeable press coverage of Mr. Armstrong’s death this weekend aside, I think the view of Armstrong’s fame enduring for thousands of years is spot on.