Neil Armstrong's Solemn but Not Sad Memorial at the National Cathedral

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At no point during the speeches could anyone forget that Armstrong lived an extraordinary life.

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In the South nave of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. there is a stained glass panel called the Space Window. The panel is filled with planets and stars, and straight lines meant to suggest the trajectories of space ships. Its color palette -- blue, purple, red and green---was inspired by images from Apollo 11. Stilled in the center of a large red orb at the window's focal point is a sliver of Moon rock. The tiny shard of lunar basalt was gifted to the Cathedral by the crew of Apollo 11 back in 1974, on the fifth anniversary of the first Moon landing. As a piece of public art, the Space Window's function is to commemorate the spiritual and scientific import of America's space program. By lodging this window into our National house of worship, alongside religious and nationalist iconography, we are saying that space exploration is sacred.

Yesterday morning, I visited the National Cathedral to attend a memorial service for space exploration's most exalted figure, Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on another celestial sphere. More than a thousand people poured into the cathedral to celebrate Armstrong, including 24 members of Congress. The Armstrong family sat in front. Nearby, a small-white haired fraternity of illustrious ex-astronauts gathered, including Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins of Apollo 11, and former U.S. Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth.

The occasion was, on the whole, joyous. This being a memorial service, the speeches all had solemn moments. But at no time was the ceremony sad; at no time could anyone forget that Armstrong lived an extraordinary life.

The service began with a recorded excerpt from John F. Kennedy's fifty-year-old address at Rice University. This was the speech that launched Apollo, the program Kennedy called "the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked." NASA Administrator Charles Bolden followed, reading from a letter written by President Obama to the Armstrong family. "The imprint [Armstrong] left on the surface of the moon," wrote the President, "is matched only by the extraordinary mark he left on ordinary Americans."

Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, spoke of Armstrong's modesty and his humble Midwest upbringing. He described the young Armstrong as a boy so obsessed with flight that he kept a paper route to fund a model airplane collection. Cernan said Armstrong originally wanted to be a designer of aircraft, an aeronautical engineer, but once he tasted flight, his "eyes were ever pointed skyward." Indeed, Armstrong is as iconic a symbol of human flight as any person who ever lived; only 23 others have flown as far from Earth as he did. 

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An image of the Space Window on the memorial service program.


After a slow, understated performance of 'Fly Me to the Moon' by Diana Krall, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde delivered a short homily. Budde noted that despite Armstrong's notorious shyness, he knew the inspirational power of his story. He once told a group of students that when he was a kid, no plane had yet flown at supersonic speeds, and there was no space program. Any talk of going to the Moon, Armstrong said, was pure science fiction. But then, in just half his lifetime, everything changed. "Opportunities," Armstrong told the students, "will be available to you that you cannot believe." 

Such are the dynamic times we live in: on the evening of Armstrong's death, the writer Jon Alton tweeted, "Watched Armstrong step into [the] Sea of Tranquility with my grandmother, who was born on the frontier with horses and wagons."

The story took on an extra layer of resonance as told by Reverend Budde, whose church only began regularly ordaining women in 1976. In 2012, Budde is a full Bishop, entrusted with memorializing a nearly peerless American hero. She finished her homily by insisting that Armstrong's great inspiration was not "exploration for exploration's sake," but the survival of the planet that we call home. She recalled Armstrong's description of the moment he first saw the Earth from space, his astonishment at its fragility, at the fact that he could blot it out entirely by shutting one eye and putting his thumb in front of it. It was a moment, Armstrong said, that made him feel small. 

Toward the service's end, Michael Collins, Apollo 11's command module pilot, read two prayers. He asked the "creator of the universe" to "guide and guard those who seek to fathom its mysteries," especially Neil Armstrong, "who with courage first set foot on the moon." The Navy's "Sea Chanters" joined the Cathedral Choristers for a roaring rendition of America the Beautiful. Finally, Carol Armstrong, the great astronaut's widow, was presented with an American flag, the very banner that flew at half-mast over NASA's Mission Control in Houston on August 25th, the day of Armstrong's passing. 

Yesterday's memorial service wasn't Armstrong's last farewell. Today he goes to his final resting place---an undisclosed location at sea---as befits a Navy man whose voyaging drew comparisons to Magellan and Columbus. Armstrong always felt strongly about his time in the Navy. In his memorial speech, Eugene Cernan said that Armstrong was never prouder than when he received his wings of gold, the ceremonial pin that marked him as a Naval aviator. But maybe he had other reasons for choosing a sea burial. Maybe the sea had always made him think of endings, of the final acts of great Odysseys. You can picture him, those 43 years ago, watching the Earth shrink in the window of the lunar module, seeing it hang, a strange moon in the abyss, a goddess robed in life-giving oceans, as blue as any seen before or since. Imagine his relief upon returning to Earth three days later, his landing cushioned by the Pacific Ocean. How good it must have felt to bob and sway in the waves that day, not even a week removed from touchdown in the Sea of Tranquility. It's hard to imagine a sweeter way to go home. 

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Ross Andersen is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. He is based in California.

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