Neil Armstrong – First Man On The Moon
The fact that more people in the world could today recognise the butt of Kim Kardashian than the face of Neil Armstrong is one that, for our sanity, we are probably best overlooking. Nevertheless, it is one of the reasons that marking and sharing the huge achievements of this quiet man remain more important than ever.
BBC2 did their bit with this brand new documentary charting the life of the fighter pilot who died earlier this year, whose name became a symbol for all that was possible for mankind, even if his mission was the product of the US's all-out hunger to get past the lunar tape ahead of the Russians.
There were some golden nuggets for die-hard followers of the space program to feed upon... Armstrong's first taste for flight aged five in a tri-plane with his father, his first aeronautic experiment (a wind tunnel in the basement of the family home), the fact that when he started courting his first wife, even his brother didn't know her name for two years – a hint of the later reserve for which he became celebrated – and the myth that he invented his era-defining words as he was stepping down from the lunar module onto the moon thoroughly debunked. In fact, he'd passed a note containing the first draft to his brother during a game of Risk! the night before.
He wasn't a god, nor a paragon of altruism. There were the Chrysler ads in the 70s, the separation from his first wife Janet following her isolation on their country farm. But he didn't have his head turned by … well, the word 'success' doesn't begin to describe his achievement. And he didn't have to strive to stay normal – he just was.
Most relevantly for this no-such-thing-as-private age, the programme made the crucial difference between the 'media recluse' as he was painted by a resentful press – deprived of his soul-selling morsels in the four decades since his name became such a globally sellable commodity - and an actual 'recluse', which he wasn't. New footage revealed a beaming Armstrong on the golf course, and serenading his second wife at his surprise 80th birthday – when did he have time to learn the piano?!
40 years after his mission inspired and united the world, I'm trying to think of a modern-day Neil Armstrong, and no name comes to mind. Perhaps it's because there is no frontier to seek out, no Russians to beat to the flag, and we're too busy looking the other way.
But it is also because he wasn't a show-off, and it's becoming ever more rare for achievement to go hand in hand with humility, or even a shrug of the shoulders, and the quiet confidence of a job well done. This programme was a humbling reminder, not just of Armstrong's enormous achievement in proving the potential of mankind when we put our thinking caps on, but of the uniquely safe hands of the man to whom such a timeless legacy was entrusted.
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