FAREWELL MY MOONWALKING FRIEND NEIL.
Tributes have poured in following the death of Neil Armstrong, the humble US astronaut whose “small step” on the moon captivated the world and came to embody the wonder of space exploration.
Armstrong, who died on Saturday at the age of 82 from complications following heart surgery earlier this month, inspired generations to reach for the stars and etched his name next to one of the great milestones of human discovery. The grainy black-and-white broadcast of Armstrong’s moon walk on July 20, 1969 was seen by some 500 million people, his words capturing the promise of the still-young space age and briefly uniting a planet split by the Cold War.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the earthbound heard Armstrong say, though he later claimed that an “a” before the word “man” had been lost in transmission.
The lunar pioneer was decorated by 17 countries and received a slew of US honours, but was never comfortable with his worldwide fame and shied away from the limelight. Armstrong even stopped signing memorabilia after learning his autographs were being sold at exorbitant prices. His autograph is today the world’s most rare and sought after. I have a newspaper cutting indicating that $13,500 is the going price for his autograph.
From the time I was a boy, I was always fascinated with the face of the moon. I had a large map of the surface of the moon on a wall in my home. I had spent many a night with the biggest telescope I could afford looking at the surface of the moon. In the 1950’s the moon was on everybody’s mind. There was a great deal of talk in scientific circles about whether or not it was possible for a man to go and walk on the moon. My grandmother had declared quite soundly that it was absolutely impossible and that it would never happen in our lifetime. However that was to change dramatically.
In May 1961 President John F. Kennedy who had inspired the United States with his freshness of approach, challenged the nation to land a man on the moon before the end of the 60s. It was to be a race with Russia who was ahead in the “space race”. American people everywhere were captivated with the idea. It dominated American thinking throughout the 1960s in a way that no other creative scientific idea has ever captured the imagination of a nation previously. The goal of landing a man on the moon involved tremendous logistical support. More than 20,000 American companies took part in making sure it happened. Hundreds of thousands of people were actually employed at a cost of more than $25 billion. But before the decade had ended, on July the 20th 1969 the rockets of Apollo 11 shot of with the destination: the moon.
The moon landing itself was a stunning achievement that commanded the world attention. It was one of those occasions when people can always remember where they were when the moon landing was telecast on earth. Every person with access to television was glued to the set.
Shortly after Apollo 11 landing on the moon we saw on our grainy black and white television the view of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldrin speaking to earth. There was a crisis at the landing. The site chosen was too dangerous. Armstrong aborted sand took over the manual controls. They had 40 seconds of fuel left! Armstrong found another site on the Sea of Tranquillity and landed the lunar module saying: “Houston. The eagle has landed.” On earth 500 million viewers breathed a sigh of relief.
Then the hatch opened and Neil Armstrong slowly descended the ladder from the moon module. As he took his first step onto the surface of the moon he said “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” President Richard Nixon rang from the White House on what he called, and “interplanetary conversation” – “The most historic telephone conversation ever made.”
Shortly after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon his co-astronaut Buz Aldrin came down the steps of the command module and together they planted an American flag in the lunar dust. As almost a celebration Buz Aldrin started to check his mobility by walking on the moon surface. Because of the lack of gravity he bounded in great kangaroo hops. The Americans had made a giant leap for mankind but they had also won a frantic race against the Soviet Union to be the first on the moon.
Neil Armstrong had stepped into history. Wherever he went in the world he was met by huge crowds who applauded deafeningly his accomplishments. Armstrong was the ideal of all American boys. He was a US Navy fighter during the Korean War and subsequently a test pilot in the early days of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He had flown the X15 rockets up into the very fringe of space and had served as command pilot of the Gemini 8 mission which had circled the earth. In moving out of the earth’s gravitation he became the first person to achieve the dream of centuries of walking on the moon.
After his historic journey he became a Professor of Engineering at the University of Cincinnati and in 1979 to mark the tenth anniversary of the moon landing, he visited Australia.
The American sales and marketing guru Ron Tacci bought Neil Armstrong to Australia to be a keynote speaker to 2500 businessmen in the Sydney Opera House. He also organised similar large-scale presentations in Melbourne and Brisbane with Neil Armstrong speaking to the Australian crowds.
For a few years I had been speaking at a number of important sales conferences around Australia at the invitation of leading companies and Ron had heard me speak. He needed an Australian on the platform to speak before Commander Armstrong. This was an incredible honour. Any public speaker in Australia would have jumped at the invitation to speak at the same occasion as Neil Armstrong. I spoke and received the most tumultuous standing ovation ever.
The scene was set, now for Neil Armstrong to give his first address in Australia. What happens next will long stay in my memory.
Sitting and talking together before the convention in the Opera house opened, Commander Armstrong was very disappointed at an article about him on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. Although it applauded all of his achievements, the heading and the article was written with a typically cynical Australian view. The headline started “Astronauts Flabby and Unfit”. And it started by saying that the first man to have been on the moon was here nine years later confessing to a reporter’s question that he was not as fit as what he was as an astronaut and in fact had been rather flabby. This was a typical cheeky question by a reporter who then majored the story upon this fact. Armstrong, who looked as fit as any man I have ever seen in my life, was deeply hurt by the cynical article.
Ron Tacci introduced him to the audience and the expectation was sky high. Neil Armstrong walked out onto the platform to a standing ovation. Then as the audience was seated he calmly took off his coat and hung it on the podium where he had placed his notes. He then walked to the centre of the platform where I had previously spoken and in a movement that surprised everyone fell flat on the platform and placing one hand behind his back started to do push-ups with one hand. Anybody who does push-ups knows that one-handed push-ups are extremely difficult. He pumped away on the floor raising his body with one arm again and again. People chanted as he reached 50 push-ups then without pausing began to do two-handed push-ups clapping in mid-air when his body was raised off the earth.
After 25 clap push-ups he calmly got up, walked over to the podium and put on his coat. The audience erupted with cheers and applause. Neil Armstrong then said, “The techniques involved in Lunar landing…” There was again tremendous applause. Few people could have performed such a remarkable feat of physical fitness without even being puffed.
I had the fortune to travel with Neil Armstrong and to speak again as the warm up to his wonderful presentation. We developed a friendship that meant a great deal. For 20 years in my office has been a photograph of us together and one of him signing and magnificent pencil sketch of him making that first small step for man and giant leap for mankind on the moon surface. On the photograph of the two of us, he wrote: “Gordon it has been an inspiration to work with you. Neil Armstrong.”
This week we took it from the secure storage for such valuable autographs, and hung it on our walls in memory of my moonwalking friend.