Thursday 21 November 2019

One small step that will never be forgotten

On July 20, 1969, 528 million people watched on television as Neil Armstrong made what he called "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".

For the first time, human beings -- Armstrong and 'Buzz' Aldrin, his colleague on the Apollo 11 space mission -- walked on the surface of a celestial body other than our own planet.

Ever since, the motivation of the expedition and its scientific value have often been questioned, especially because the mission was launched as part of the space race, more specifically the moon race, between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1961 a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, had become the first man in space. President John F Kennedy promised to trump that achievement by sending a man to the moon before the end of the decade.

The prestige of the rival superpowers counted for more than science.

But Armstrong's death at the age of 82 prompts reflection, with the advantage of greater perspective and a wider context, on the triumph of 1969 -- and leads to the conclusion that the manned expedition was indeed a giant leap for mankind. It caught the imagination of the world in a unique manner.

It helped to put the solar system and our place in it in a new light.

There was little direct connection between the landing and the subsequent enormous advances in space flight and exploration, but it generated more excitement than any other milestone in these developments.

And it drew attention to the amazing physical courage and rigorous training of the astronauts who ventured, like their predecessors in the Age of Discovery, literally into the unknown.

Armstrong had that courage in abundance. And like so many of his kind, he was a modest and private man who in later life did not seek adulation or trade on his celebrity.

He lived to see achievements of greater significance than that of Apollo 11.

Lately we have witnessed one of the greatest -- the beginning of the exploration of Mars. Can that planet ever have sustained life? What clues can it give us to the origins of life itself? Like the search for the 'Higgs boson', and like the moon landing, it has told us something of the utmost importance for ourselves.

Evidence of human flaws is all about us, in poverty, in war, in injustice.

The glorious pictures of the Earth, taken from space, suggest a tranquillity rare enough on this troubled planet.

But the dauntless human spirit continues to search out the secrets of the vast universe and the tiniest particles.

Neil Armstrong played a noble part in this magnificent enterprise. His "one small step" can never be forgotten.

Irish Independent

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