Saddened to hear of Neil Armstrong's death today at age 82. Hard to believe that it was 43 years ago that he became the first human to set foot on a celestial body. Buzz Aldrin soon followed him.
It really does seem like yesterday.
By all accounts, Armstrong was a humble man uncomfortable with all the adulation heaped upon him. He was the proverbial 'reluctant hero', but a hero he was.
What was so amazing about that mission was seeing those first live video feeds from the Moon. Just like John F. Kennedy's assassination I'll never forget where I was late on the evening of 20 July 1969 when those grainy black-and-white images from a quarter million miles away showed up on our TV: in the bowels of the Bryan Complex (men's dormitory) at the College of William and Mary. In those days, the Department of Geology's labs were in the basement. I was a geology major and it was the summer before my senior year.
We were in the petrology lab, probably 15-20 of us, all men I think, because the women had to be in their dorms by 11 PM. Not all present were geology majors; since dorm rooms were above us a bunch of interlopers were there. In those days, TVs in dorm rooms were rare (maybe even forbidden); in any case, reception was crappy (no cable in those days).
If it sounds like the Stone Ages, you've got that right. We were not learning plate tectonics, as that nascent subject was still being debated and had not yet filtered down to undergraduate textbooks. We learned instead about the continental drift hypothesis (which was still being debated) that would later morph into plate tectonics. And how did mountains arise? Through something called the 'geosynclinal theory of mountain building'. I don't think any of us, including the instructors, really believed that, but that was the way mountain ranges (except volcanoes) were being explained.
Anyway, I don't recall much discussion as we viewed those live video feeds. There were gasps and other expressions, but for the most part, we were just plain mesmerized and consumed with hearing the audio.
I do recall one thing clearly: thinking how proud I was to be a nascent geologist. Until that Apollo 11 mission, the space program had been primarily about engineering and physics. Rockets and capsules. Computers. Communications. Some chemistry, too. And biology and medicine (keeping humans alive in space). But this mission was different - it was about rocks - collecting rocks and 'soil' on a (presumably) lifeless celestial body. So now the earth scientists would have their day, interpreting the samples Armstrong and Aldrin brought back, speculating on the origins of the Earth-Moon system and the planets. Maybe more stuff, too.
I remember reading that although Armstrong was an aerospace engineer (you need those types to fly the rockets), he had had substantial training in geology in preparation for the mission. Great!
Although I was so proud of my geological training, and still am, I never had an interest in becoming a lunar/planetary geologist. But I find the subject absolutely fascinating, and hey, there's likely water on the Moon and on Mars!
So do as Armstrong's family and friends have requested, take a look at the Moon, and wink.
"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." - Neil Armstrong