Neil Armstrong died over the weekend. For people of a certain age the exploits of Armstrong and other pioneers of space travel will remain for always an indelible part of their youth. Earlier today I looked up my diary entries for 1969. I was 14 years of age and in the week of the moon landing had been on holiday in Wales. We got back to Stoke that weekend and sat to watch the events of the night of the 20th and 21st of July unfold. The TV coverage was memorable; the BBC at the time had a policy of employing people who knew what they were talking about. And then in the early hours of that memorable Monday morning the news that Armstong and Aldrin had landed the moon vehicle and Armstrong was about to make his epoch making walk. The grainy TV screen made out a ladder and a boot as the astronaut made his descent and of course as he touched the surface of the moon his famous comment. A copy of The Guardian was bought commemorating the moon landing, which we kept until it disintegrated.
It was a time of optimism about the future of man in space and each episode of space exploration- whether it be American or Soviet- was eagerly anticipated. I particularly recall the Apollo 8 voyage in 1968. It was Christmas time and a particularly snowy holiday period. I remember looking up at the night sky at a brilliant full Moon as the astronauts beamed back the celebrated picture of a vulnerable planet Earth, a startlingly blue, and of course later the dramatic escape from catastrophe of Apollo 13. As someone told me today all these explorations were achieved by basic computers, slide rules and log tables.
I knew someone who met Armstrong and told me what a self-effacing and modest man he was. He never once sought to make personal gain from his triumph. The astronaut was the first to recognise that his supreme achievement was the product of teamwork, of the thousands of people who had worked on the space programme since the 1950s. In a modern age and in a time of instant celebrity perhaps we should reflect on what truly makes for a hero. Armstrong would certainly fit into this category, even though he shunned the limelight, because, for a brief shining moment he showed the way to the stars.