Remembering Neil Armstrong

A personal recollection, if you'll indulge me. Reflecting on Neil Armstrong and the American mission to put a man on the moon, it occurs to me that this astonishing achievement probably altered the course of my life.

My father, who has been very ill lately, was born in the same year as Armstrong. He was an engineer in the British nuclear power industry, a job that involved a lot of international collaboration. As a result, I was raised on tales of his experience of working with American engineers on the finer problems of fuel rod manipulation and so forth. He used to say Americans worked harder, faster and to a higher standard than his British colleagues. They love their work, he used to tell me; not many Brits are like that. (I'd better not say what he thought of his colleagues in France and Italy.) My father is a skeptical man, not given to enthusiasm or exaggeration, so his admiration of the American engineers impressed me all the more.

When it came to what NASA accomplished, his admiration turned to awe. It makes me chuckle even now to think back to it. This reverence was so unlike him. He wanted me to understand just how difficult a thing it was--and how daring. "I know you think it's incredibly hard, but it's so much harder than that." He followed the engineering as closely as he could and explained a lot of it to me. He persuaded me so well that I secretly decided it couldn't actually be done. The margins for error were just too small. I was sure something would go wrong and they'd fail. Of course we stayed up all night and watched the video of the first walk on the surface. We were both moved to tears.

Armstrong's subsequent shunning of the limelight only deepened my father's regard for him, were that possible. Armstrong--an engineer by training and vocation--was embarrassed to be given so much credit, knowing that it rested on the work of the rest of the NASA team. More than forty years later, the only thing that seems anachronistic about the commander of Apollo 11 is that he had no capacity whatever for self-promotion--which in most fields of endeavor we have made a substitute for achievement, or at any rate a necessary component of success.

I think by 1969 my father's admiration of Americans had seeped in anyway, but that night something gave way once and for all.

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