Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

How Armstrong's moonwalk teaches us to reach for stars

Neil Armstrong - the very name, the three resonant syllables, evokes a different, a better era: one of hope, optimism, courage and faith in the future.

Now, with the astronaut's death, it is a chance to reconsider what a fantastic achievement going to the Moon was.

In comparison with ours, the technology of the 1960s was primitive and yet they did it.

And why? Because a generation said: 'Let's Go'.

They wanted to do it not for money, for profit or even individual glory, but because it fired their imaginations, their better selves.

For centuries the Moon, while central to our existence, was mysterious, exercising a tidal pull on our imaginations. Just look at the number of Tin Pan Alley songs about what is essentially a piece of cold, barren rock.

And so Armstrong and his generation made their small step and giant leap.

Central to their enterprise was a simple wonder. what's it like out there?

No wonder, then, some of the moonwalkers spoke of a sense of awe, a sense of grandeur, a sense of God, as they stood there, looking back at our little blue ball.

But the point isn't essentially a theological one.

It was about realising that there was something greater (the sheer expanse of space, God - call it what you will) than our own puny selves, that we had a need, a destiny, to go beyond what we know, if only to see ourselves more clearly. Perhaps, it was just a fortuitous coming together of people and circumstances: individual brave men like Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn (and let us not forget their Soviet counterparts), governments driven both by idealism and fear and a populace fired by an idea.

Of course, we can take particular pride in Armstrong due to his Ulster roots which were so reflected in his character: modest, straightforward, not given to two words when one would do, quietly courageous and with a stubborn tenacity.

But regardless, there have been no giant leaps for mankind since.

Displaying another human attribute - boredom - we grew weary of going to the Moon.

Indeed, it is shocking to think that a man or woman in their thirties has never seen a manned space flight to the Moon or to another planet. More shocking, still, is the idea that it looks as if this generation may pass away before our imaginations are fired once again to look out to space. (Robo-probes and Hubble telescopes are all very well but ... )

On the contrary, there is an argument that our universe is metaphorically getting steadily smaller. The giant leap of cyberspace has been great for those who want to consume - porn, the latest films, music and books. You name it, you can get it at the click of a mouse - and shop or entertain yourself. It's also perfect for those who want to banally assert themselves with their latest trivial happenings and opinions. (Though has anyone ever been convinced by an internet argument?).

Nevertheless, despite its early promise, cyberspace has been all about 'Planet Me', a place where we find ourselves endlessly fascinating, despite all objective evidence to the contrary.

Self discovery is all very well but at times it's hard not to feel that we were made for something greater. When we were isolated little communities we went out over the hill, made primitive rafts and sailed across the lake to find out what was there.

When we settled into larger states, we sailed the seaways, found new continents (and yes, I am aware of the existence of native peoples), explored the poles, climbed the highest mountains.

We are really not at our finest remaining passively still, fiddling with our laptops, sipping our lattes and living lives devoid of challenge and risk.

While we may not be as brave, or as heroic as men like Neil Armstrong, his passing is a reminder that we are capable of greater things.

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