What’s in a Name? A Tale of Two Armstrongs
Astronaut and Cyclist Offer Lessons About Nature of Heroism

August 29th, 2012
by Robert Armstrong

Neil Armstrong prepares to set foot on the moon in a NASA video image from July 20, 1969. Armstrong died August 25 at his Ohio home. He was 82.

Neil Armstrong prepares to set foot on the moon in a NASA video image from July 20, 1969. Armstrong died August 25 at his Ohio home. He was 82.

Two of my namesakes (neither related either to me or to one another, as far as I know) were in the news while I was in the States in late August to move my son Michael to college. Neil Armstrong, the first earthling to set foot on the moon, died August 25 at 82. Earlier that same week, Lance Armstrong – cancer survivor, seven-time Tour de France champion and one-time fiancé to Sheryl Crow – announced he would no longer dispute charges that he had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Both men were heroes in their own right in their respective eras. Their stories tell us something about the direction our society is moving.

President Obama eulogized Neil Armstrong as one of the greatest American heroes of all time. But he was not a hero only to Americans. He fulfilled the aspirations of people everywhere throughout the ages who dreamed of reaching the stars, just as Lance Armstrong inspired people everywhere struggling with cancer (or wanting to date Sheryl Crow).

I was seven when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in July 1969. I was outside playing with the neighborhood kids on a hot summer evening when my father stepped out on our back deck to tell me they were about to telecast the moonwalk. I told one of my friends, a couple years older than me, that I had to go inside because they were about to walk on the moon. “Big deal,” he replied, as only a nine-year-old can. But it was a big deal to me, and to an estimated 600 million other people who watched it around the world. (There were only 3 billion people on the planet then, and most of them did not own TVs.)

I watched every moonwalk after that. My father even let me stay home from school a couple times to do it, foreseeing, correctly as it turned out, that being witness to that part of history would be more valuable to me than anything I would learn in school on those particular days. I built models of Apollo spacecraft in my basement and decided I wanted to be an astronaut. The possibilities seemed endless. Manned spaceflight had begun less than 10 years earlier. In another 10 years we would probably reach Mars. I only hoped there would be something left for me to explore when I grew up. Then lunar missions, and all manned spaceflight beyond Earth’s orbit, came to an end just three and a half years later. Nobody wanted to pay for it anymore. So rather than become an astronaut, I became first a diplomat, then a magazine publisher instead.

Neil Armstrong’s accomplishment is thus all the more noteworthy in that it has not since been surpassed, nor is it likely to be anytime soon. Decades later I was deputy science counselor at the US Embassy in Beijing when China was preparing to launch its first person into space and talking about a moon mission about 20 years later. My reaction at the time was like that of my nine-year-old friend three decades earlier: “Big deal.” But this time it was in the sense of, “We did that 40 years ago, and we did it in eight years.” (I wasn’t very diplomatic, which is why I now publish a magazine.)

But the truly remarkable thing about Neil Armstrong was that, despite being associated with one of the most significant achievements in human history, he shunned the limelight and remained humble to the end. Obituaries are describing him as a “reluctant hero,” something almost unheard of in today’s media-saturated society in which failed vice presidential candidates parlay their 15 minutes of fame into reality TV shows.

Who can remember seeing Neil Armstrong on TV after returning from the moon? Sure, he had his obligatory ticker-tape parade and goodwill tour and later got named to some corporate boards. But for all intents and purposes he returned to his private life as a self-described “nerdy engineer.” It seems he saw walking on the moon as just doing his job. NASA chose him to command the first lunar mission, and he did what he was supposed to do. It was a collective accomplishment, built upon scientific advances achieved over centuries. It wasn’t all about him.

Lance Armstrong, in contrast, has done much more to translate his more earthly accomplishments into earthly rewards, although he has also done much to benefit cancer research. That he has now all but admitted to doping does not detract from his having defeated cancer and then won numerous cycling titles (which will now be relinquished) against competitors who, it must be said, were also probably in large proportion doped.

Lance Armstrong’s reputation will undoubtedly suffer from his August nolo contendere. But on top of other doping scandals involving other world-class performers, it serves to further weaken the public’s faith in today’s “heroes” as a group. In sports and in other endeavors, the pressure to win at all costs, and the huge sums at stake, seem to be erasing all ethical boundaries. Eventually all athletic achievements from the steroid era may have to appear in the record books with asterisks forever tarnishing their legitimacy. And it is not only in sports that today’s celebrities are falling short on authenticity and humility. Who can we trust anymore? Who can we look up to? Is there no limit to human vanity?

Where have you gone, Neil Armstrong? A nation – and a world – turns its lonely eyes to you.

Apologies to Simon and Garfunkel.

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