Imagine you could go to any expensive restaurant any day and the owner would insist that you didn’t have to pay. Imagine you could pick any new car on any lot and it would be given to you. Imagine you could decide in a day to run for the U.S. Senate, and you were guaranteed a win. Or that you could offer to give a speech to any audience–to thousands in an auditorium or tens of millions on television–and the microphone would be handed to you. Imagine you could ask to meet with any head of state at any time to offer your opinions, and the door would fly open. Imagine fame, power, and wealth.
No exaggeration here: that is the life that one of the most famous men of the 20th century could have had, if he had wanted it. By being the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong did something utterly unique. None of the other eleven men who walked on the moon captivated the attention of billions of people from virtually all the nations of the earth. That first step, the “small step” Armstrong spoke of, only happened once, by one man.
Much of the commentary about Armstrong since his death on Saturday has focussed on his withdrawn, extremely private life. Why would a man who could have “had it all” choose to take very little? How can a person resist the promise of fame, wealth, and power? Why did he not cash in? By all accounts, Armstrong was, by nature, a very private person. But there is more to the story.
I must confess to having felt cheated over the years. I was engrossed in the space program ever since I watched John Glenn on a flickering black and white television in my grade school classroom. Ever since Kennedy’s audacious goal for a decade. And in the run-up to Apollo 11 I read everything I could find, including the magazines detailing the biographies of the three astronauts. Neil Armstrong was a captivating figure, not because of personality but by dint of position. First chair on the first ship to land on the moon. A real man who didn’t like to exercise, who had little sentiment, but who had an incredibly focussed dedication to his work.
And ice water in his veins. He landed on the moon with seconds of fuel to spare, having flown manually over a boulder field. Seconds later we heard: “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed” with an authentically tranquil voice. Amazing.
When the ticker tape parades were over after their return and Armstrong slipped into the shadows, rarely to agree to an interview over four decades, depriving us of his unique insights, frustrating our drive to own a hero, was the meaning of Apollo 11 curtailed? Or did Armstrong make a choice–the only possible choice–that would preserve the significance?
Here is the key: Neil Armstrong’s core conviction was that Apollo was an accomplishment owned by thousands. He really did see his “small step” as a small step–and the leap belonged to mankind. Armstrong’s words always came out “we,” not “me.” And it wasn’t just rhetoric. He really believed it. His biographer, James R. Hanson, said: “I think Neil knew that this glorious thing he helped achieve for the country back in the summer of 1969—glorious for the entire planet, really—would inexorably be diminished by the blatant commercialism of the modern world. And I think it’s a nobility of his character that he just would not take part in that.”
I sat on my patio late last night and stared at the moon for a long time–that friendly but foreboding alien presence in our lives. The wonder of the summer of 1969 has not diminished for me. Those guys were there. They really were. I remembered Armstrong saying that he wasn’t worried about the conspiracy theorists who say man never went to the moon because someday when people return to the moon they will find the tools he and Buzz left behind right where they left them.
Instead of shooting nuclear missiles at each other back then, the Soviets and the U.S. shot their rockets into space in a peaceful race that advanced science and learning. Did Apollo make nuclear conflagration less likely? Maybe. With the Viet Nam war raging, race riots in the streets, student protests, assassinations, somehow armies of engineers, contractors, and scientists pulled together and did something that seemed impossible. A man in Belgium grabbed his kids, jumping up and down, exclaiming “we did it” when the spidery ship touched down on the moon. Interesting: “we.” It was an American accomplishment but one owned by the human race.
Is there a lesson to be learned from this reluctant hero? For us ordinary folks putting the emphasis on “we” not “me” shouldn’t be all that difficult. We’re not giving up a Senate seat or mountains of money or dazzling celebrity when we step off our puny pedestals.
It should not be hard for Christian leaders to take the humble path. We have more than the example of Neil Armstrong, we have Jesus Christ “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). And we have a command: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (vs. 5). It should not be hard.
A friend of mine was on a chartered plane with a group of preachers and other Christian leaders. He told me there was so much hot air on that plane, it wouldn’t have needed engines to stay aloft. Funny? Or sad?
So, Neil Armstrong: thanks for going into space for all of us, and thanks for coming back to earth and keeping your feet on the ground–for all of us.
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