This summer, we have mourned the loss of two great astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. I was born in 1990--too young by far to have witnessed the Apollo missions or even the early days of the shuttle era--and so for me, Armstrong and Ride have always been names in textbooks. Now I am reminded of how very human they, and the adventure of exploration on which they brought us all along, are.Image credit: NASA Apollo Archive
Their lives remind us that science is a process founded on the enthusiasm of individuals, groups, and the public. We need individuals who can approach science the way Armstrong and Ride did--as an adventure, and an experience to be shared.
Yet for me--and, I suspect others of my generation as well--it sometimes feels like that adventure was over before we could ever join in; as if we'd just opened the book to find that what we'd hoped was the prologue was actually the final chapter.
Is this really the end of an era? Not at all. NASA's Curiosity rover landing just a few weeks ago sparked excitement all around the world not because it promised definitive, immediate answers on the habitability of Mars. It was exciting because it showed us that we are capable of more than we think. That was Neil Armstrong's attitude, and it's something every person--scientist or not--can hold onto.
On the other hand, last summer marked the end of NASA's decades-long space shuttle program. Unlike satellites and robotic rovers, the shuttle program literally sent people beyond our world. At the same time, it inspired people back home to try to break through their own boundaries.
As James Hansen, author of "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong," told CBS in a widely-quoted interview: "All of the attention that... the public put on stepping down that ladder onto the surface itself, Neil never could really understand why there was so much focus on that."
Maybe that's why Armstrong was so humble. It wasn't so much about stepping onto the moon as it was the thrill of his never-ending curiosity. Now I see him as a person who really enjoyed science for the way it propels us forward step by step--and not really in one giant leap.