History remembers the now-departed Neil Armstrong fondly for being the first man to set foot on the moon. And it should. That first step was the culmination of millions of years of human exploration and ingenuity, taking us from the trees to an entirely new world. The importance of that can’t be overstated.
When we imagine taking a step this large as a species, it’s difficult not to imagine the person leading the way as being larger than life, of possessing exceptional qualities that allowed them to break through to this new frontier. They are our hero, our catalyst, something we can focus on and examine and emulate order to better ourselves.
Neil Armstrong is a particularly refreshing idol in this regard because there’s nothing particularly exceptional about him. Well…that’s not entirely true. He tended to crash planes. A lot.
Reading about Armstrong’s trajectory through life is a study in self-reflection. He came from a middle class Ohio family and joined the U.S. Navy in order to pay for college. Armstrong was flying before he was driving, and became a navy pilot stationed in Korea. There, he eventually got tagged by anti-aircraft fire, sheared a wing off of his plane while flying too close to the ground, and crashed his plane into the sea.
One can hardly fault the aeronautics engineer and test pilot for being shot down, but for one reason or another, Armstrong would leave a trail of wrecked aircraft throughout his career, including:
- Landing a four-engine B-29 after three of the propellers were damaged beyond use.
- Flying an X-15 to the edge of the atmosphere, keeping the nose too high, and bouncing off the atmosphere during his descent.
- Getting a Lockheed T-33 stuck in a muddy lakebed only four days later.
- Landing a Lockheed F-104 without the landing gear, then wrecking the second runway he subsequently flew to.
- Making an emergency re-entry and ocean landing with the Gemini 8 after successfully docking with another spacecraft in orbit but getting besieged by faulty wiring and lack of training.
- Crashing the very Lunar Landing Training Vehicle that the Apollo 11 crew was going to pilot on the moon during a training session.
When you look at Armstrong’s mistakes collected like this, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would let this guy into space.
But we did, and history was made, because we are not defined solely by our mistakes, our defeats, our failures. Armstrong flew hundreds of planes without incident, successfully landed an overshooting Lunar Module, and further, the planes he crashed? More often than not, he was supposed to crash them. A test pilot who doesn’t push a plane to its limits, who doesn’t reveal structural flaws, isn’t quite doing his job and isn’t making anything safer for those who come after.
Neil Armstrong was an average student, Eagle Scout, and committed to his work as a pilot, engineer, and astronaut. He kept his opinions close and was reluctant about his status as an “American hero.” In short, he approached his life in exactly the same way as you or I, unsure but willing to explore, committed to something notable to the world beyond him, and humbled by his mistakes and his victories.
This is why Armstrong is to be celebrated. Because his life and his deeds stand as absolute proof that any of us can be the first footprint on a new world.
This article was originally published August 5, 2013 on Tor.com
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is going to be the first mouthprint on this sandwich.