The NBC news tweet alerted the world to the death of an historic icon. “Astronaut Neil Young, the first man to walk on the moon has died”. The gaff was re-tweeted around the world at the speed of light. Within minutes an embarrassed NBC news editor changed the headline to “Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon ,has died”.
Over millions of years the moon pulled and pushed the tides of the oceans from which, eventually, life forms climbed ashore and in a cosmic heart beat, stood up and achieved consciousness. In the blink of an eye, a human flew up to the Moon and trod its virgin dust.
The early years of the 1960s were over shadowed by the ubiquitous threat of nuclear annihilation. We sat through those days of the Cuban missile crisis quaking in our boots. After the insanity of WW2 we so swiftly brought ourselves back to the brink. The crisis came and went. Phew!
JFK announces to the world “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” This was more like it!
At the time that Kennedy made this speech, Man had spent only 120 minutes in space; first the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and then American astronuat Alan Sheppard, but the space race was on. Kennedy committed the country to the most expensive project in the history of the world. He promised that it would lead to huge advances in materials, computing, avionics, telecommunications and other technologies. He certainly made good on that promise. Kennedy concluded his great speech: “Therefore as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing, on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked”
Then they assassinated him.
As a teenager I watched the first Moon landing. It was a moment of such positive potential – a time when the new generation was full of hope and energy. Everyone knows where they were at that moment. We were all there with him as Armstrong took that one small step; this was where we were going. This was where our future was, out there – amongst the stars, with the cosmic wind blowing on our cheeks; all my comics told me so.
A dozen men would walk on the moon before the Apollo programme came to an end. Neil Armstrong left behind on the Moon an American flag and a plaque with the inscription “We came in Peace for All Mankind”
Eventually the moment faded away into History. With that fading and cut backs in NASA’s budget there was a decline in American Space superiority. But others will follow in his footsteps.
And what of the man?
When Armstrong returned to Earth he was the most famous person in History. He could have cashed in; he could have named his price, but he didn’t. Early on he was warned by Charles Limburg – who only thirty years previously had been the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – of the dangerous storm of public and commercial interest that was blowing his way. In Lindbergh’s case it had resulted in the kidnapping and murder of his child son. Armstrong heeded the warning.
After leaving NASA, Neil Armstrong became a teacher at Cincinnati University and kept out of the limelight for the rest of his life. Whenever he found himself in the public eye he deflected all adoration; always reminding people that he was part of a much larger team; he just happened to be the one who “flew the bird”
On his death we were able to pause a moment to remember this humble man and the massive thing he did. Long after our civilisation has crumbled; his first footprints will remain on the Sea of Tranquillity, undisturbed in the lunar dust, until the end of the Solar System.
In its sixty year history NASA has launched men into orbit (Mercury and Gemini), gone to the Moon – Apollo, created the Space Shuttle programme, helped build and supply the Space Station, launched the Hubble Telescope; that incredible sharp eye on the Universe, placed hundreds of satellites into orbit and launched many interplanetary probes, like “Curiosity” the current Mars Lander mission. One of those programmes was pair of probes called Voyager 1&2.
Launched in 1977, these machines were sent out on a Grand Tour of the great Gas Giants of the Solar System. There was a rare favourable planetary alignment that allowed Voyager to fly out past Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus, sending back an invaluable amount of data and some magnificent images of the planets and their moons. Using each of the Planet’s gravitational pull Voyager was propelled towards and then past each solar body onto the next, until passing close to Neptune the mission was to be flung onwards out of the Solar system and into deep space.
This week Voyager 1 has broken through the outer edge of Heliosphere – the bubble of charged particles created by the solar wind that denotes the edge of the Solar system and interstellar space. We know that Voyager is now leaving our solar system because of the change in the signals being sent back from the craft. The radio signature of cosmic rays of deep space is now greater than that of the Solar wind. The radio, which has a signal similar in power as a cell phone, will broadcast back home until about 2025 when the plutonium power unit emits its last particle.
Apart from the small nuclear reactor, the science packages and the radio equipment Voyager1&2 carries a Gold-plated audio-visual disc which is a kind of calling card should any extraterrestrial life forms encounter the craft at some point in the far distant future.
Etched on the surface of the disc is a diagram explaining how to retrieve the recording. There is even a stylus and an electrical pickup on board with which to play the record. The disc contains images of life on Earth, it’s place in the solar system and audio recordings of greetings in 50 languages, the sounds made by surf, wind, thunder and animals, bird and whale song and a selection of music; including Mozart, Beethoven, Guan Pinghu, Stravinsky, Chuck Berry and some blues music.
In 1945 when the world was emerging from WW2 and entering the Atomic age; an Ohio rookie flyer, 15 year old Neil Armstrong – was awarded his pilots’ license – a year before he was allowed to drive. Rock legend Neil Young was born and a little known blues singer, Blind Willie Johnson was found dead in the burnt out ruins of his Huston house, which he couldn’t afford to rebuild, covered in wet newspapers.
Born in 1897 in Texas, Willie Johnson told his father when he was five years old that he wanted to be a preacher. This was the year Charles Lindbergh was born. He made a guitar from a cigar box and began his musical journey. Willie’s mother had died when he was a baby and eventually his father re-married. One day he witnessed a ferocious argument between his Step- Mother and Father which resulted in boiling water being thrown into his face. He lost his sight for ever. He spent his time preaching the Gospel and singing the Blues in towns across the Southern states.
The blues music included on Voyager’s Golden disc is a track by Blind Willie Johnson called “Dark was the night, cold was the day” Blind, alone and penniless when he died; this man’s music has just left the solar system entering interstellar space, and at the time of writing, is 10 billion kilometres out and counting.
Along with Beethoven and Mozart , Blind Willie’s song is 35 years into an infinite journey to the stars.