The Armstrong legacy

Features editor

It’s a source of slight frustration to me that I don’t remember the Apollo 11 landing; as a fully paid-up nerd it seems to me that I ought to. I did watch it — my parents woke me up, sat me in front of the television and told me to ‘watch that, Stu, it’s history,’ but I was six months old at the time, needed to be propped up on cushions, and was probably more interested in milk. A little early to be forming memories.

It means that I have no memory of a time when Neil Armstrong was actually in the public eye for his actions, rather than his reputation, which is, of course, just how he wanted it. Armstrong didn’t want to be the mouthpiece for the Apollo Programme; he didn’t want the landing to be all about him; he didn’t want to usurp the attention from the people he thought really deserved it, which was the enormous team of people whose work over a decade and more had let him and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon for just under two and a quarter hours. That was a large part of the reason that he made such a conscious effort to drop out of sight, living a private life, teaching aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, and refusing all interview requests for the rest of his life.

Armstrong
A teary-eyed Neil Armstrong photographed in the LEM shortly after his moonwalk

That means that some of Armstrong’s actions have themselves been forgotten, which is a pity. He was, of course, an engineer himself, as well as a truly gifted pilot —hooked on planes from the age of six, he learned to fly before he learned to drive. He was undoubtedly involved in the design of the Apollo vehicles, as chief test pilot for the Lunar Excursion Module (if you want to see just how good he was, take a look at this clip of him testing a flying LEM simulator). And he landed the LEM on manual, after its systems were overloaded, flying it away from some hazardous rocks and placing it down on the lunar surface with barely 20 seconds of fuel remaining. Plenty to brag about, if he’d chosen to brag.

Despite his long silence, with Armstrong’s death last week it seems like a lot of the excitement of space has gone too. So many people have told me that nothing has been as exciting as watching the Saturn Fives lifting off and those vulnerable little command modules splashing down on their parachutes; seeing the misty black-and-white images of men bouncing in reduced gravity on the surface of another world; hearing the scratchy, bleepy conversations of humans a quarter of a million miles away. While the Shuttle and the ISS are more technologically advanced than the lunar vehicles; despite the thrill of the landing of Curiosity on Mars: let’s face it, they’re just don’t have the charge of Apollo.

It’s often been said that despite the technological advancements that came from Apollo, its real legacy was in encouraging millions of people to go into science and engineering. Neil Armstrong knew this, and in his rare public pronoucements and behind the scenes was an advocate for more manned spaceflight. There’s nothing like the idea of people going exploring to capture the imagination: we all mentally put ourselves in their places. It is, in a very real sense, a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind.

It’s often been said that despite the technological advancements that came from Apollo, its real legacy was in encouraging millions of people to go into science and engineering

Of course, the cost of manned spaceflight always rears its head when it’s discussed. It’s a major commitment for any government to make, and it’s unlikely that any private enterprise would take it on, when the returns are so unpredictable and long-term. But, as I’ve argued before, it’s an investment. It draws talented people in, stretches their ingenuity, forces them to hit hard deadlines with the highest of possible stakes — human lives — at risk. And these days, the idea of international collaboration is much more widely accepted than in the 1960s; projects like the Large Hadron Collider and ITER have set a precedent, and a manned mission to the Moon or Mars would doubtless be international collaborations these days, without the need for the sort of Herculean effort the US made to fund Apollo alone. Although that would raise the awkward question of how to select the astronauts themselves.

The prospect of manned exploration is still encouraging innovative thinking today. The team behind Britain’s most exciting engineering project, Skylon, has been getting involved with its outline for a manned mission to Mars, which it is calling Project Troy. This would use Skylons to ferry components for planetary bases into Earth orbit, where they would be assembled before setting off to the Red Planet, and to take astronauts up to interplanetary transfer vessels. You can see an animation of the mission outline, complete with some rather striking music, here. The prospect of over two and a half years in space seems incredibly daunting, but I bet there would be no shortage of volunteers.

In the meantime, the US is working on its next generation of heavy launch vehicles, even bigger than Saturn Five, for a planned resumption of manned missions in the coming decades. So it’s on the cards. It would be a marvellous memorial to Neil Armstrong, the unassuming man who took our hopes into space then faded from sight.

Together, we’ve recreated the conditions a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Together, we’re discovering how to control and use nuclear fusion. Together, we could rediscover the excitement of manned spaceflight and explore the solar system. To quote the man who sent Armstrong to the moon, John F Kennedy, we choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. And they’re worth it.