August 25th, 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface. Shortly after his death, the Armstrong family announced that, to honor Neil, every August 25th, people should wink at the Moon if they see it. I feel that does not go far enough. One should salute it instead.
One of the main reasons for this was that the man was a true American hero. While taking over the lunar module’s controls to steer the craft away from a field of boulders that would have brought the mission to a fatal end would be considered a very heroic feat, it wasn’t his only one or even his first.
In the Korean War, Armstrong flew fighter jets from a carrier to attack targets in North Korea. On one of his missions, his plane ran into a cable stretched across a valley by the North Koreans to wreck low-flying American planes. For most pilots, the level of damage would have been enough to cause the pilot to eject, which would have likely resulted in a stay at a North Korean POW camp. But Armstrong was no ordinary pilot. He managed to maintain some control over the plane. While returning to the carrier was impossible, there was a Marine base that was within flying range. Armstrong proceeded to fly to the base. Just before he reached the base, the plane became uncontrollable and he was forced to eject. Armstrong made it safely to the ground and was promptly rescued by Marines from the nearby base.
Another heroic feat was during the Gemini 8 mission. This was to test the concept of docking spacecraft in orbit. The test target was the upper stage of an Agena rocket. Shortly after docking, the crew noticed the capsule was moving in an odd manner. Thinking the problem was with the upper stage, they quickly undocked. The problem only got worse and the capsule started to spin. What had happened was one of the Gemini capsule’s thrusters got stuck in the on position and was causing the spacecraft to spin, almost to the point of uncontrollability. Sizing up the situation, Armstrong decided to use the thrusters designed for reentry as a means of stopping the motion, something that nobody had considered. Fortunately, the maneuver worked but it meant that they had to return to Earth immediately. But that quick action saved the life of Armstrong and that of his fellow astronaut.
However, heroism wasn’t his only claim to greatness. There was his character. He never bragged about his heroic deeds. When Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, Armstrong was always quick to credit the success of the mission to the vast number of engineers, scientists, and workers who designed and built the spacecraft. He never lorded his accomplishment over others and, after he retired from NASA, he became a professor of aeronautics. If our elected officials had only one-percent of his character, this country would be a better place.
Armstrong’s post-Apollo conduct was reminiscent of that of another great American hero – one of our first. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington could have asked for, and got, anything he wanted. Yet, he decided to return to his home at Mount Vernon and operate his plantation. At the end of his two terms (he felt two terms were enough) as president, he again went back home and kept to himself.
So, if you see the Moon on August 25th, don’t wink, salute. Let’s honor a great American hero, one who never disgraced himself and one we don’t have to apologize for.