Tags: Doug Robb, NASA, Neil Armstrong
In February, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus approved the name of the newest Littoral Combat Ship for Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Congresswoman who was critically injured in a January 2011 shooting in her Tucson district. Today, in what will be a decidedly less controversial decision, the Secretary should consider naming the next Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier after American hero, icon, and patriot Neil Armstrong. This is fully in keeping with the Secretary’s report to Congress on the policies and practices of naming Navy ships.
Though we never met, I feel a particularly close bond to the first man to walk on the moon. I was born and raised in West Lafayette, Indiana—home of Purdue University, where Armstrong studied and received a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering in 1955. After the U.S. Naval Academy, Purdue has educated more astronauts (22) than any other school, including Eugene Cernan, a fellow naval officer and the last man to walk on the moon in 1972. My high school stands less than a mile from the campus’s Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering; a bronze statue of Armstrong as a student graces its plaza.
My dad, who in 1969 was in his third year teaching at Purdue (he is now in his 45th), regaled me with tales of Armstrong’s lifetime accomplishments, including some that are more obscure, such as when he piloted a black-and-gold painted Boeing-727 (donated to the university by United Airlines) into the Purdue airport in 1993 in a notably harrowing landing that belied his skill as an aviator. Indeed, though more than 600 million people—then one-fifth of the world’s population—watched TV coverage beaming from the Eagle moon lander that July night, no community claimed a more personal attachment to Armstrong and his achievements than West Lafayette.
There are myriad reasons why Armstrong, who died on August 25 at the age of 82, deserves having his name etched into the Naval Registry. The most obvious is his connection to NASA’s manned space program. Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 lunar mission, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” only eight years after it was proffered. In doing so, the United States not only trumped the Soviet Union in the race to the moon but also gained a propaganda edge that it would not surrender. Moreover, the Apollo mission served as a unifying event during a particularly tumultuous time in American history in the wake of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots in many cities, campus unrest, and protests over the war in Vietnam. The moon landing was a shining moment that united all Americans and made us proud.
Additionally, Armstrong had strong Navy credentials. He served for three years as an active-duty aviator (with an additional eight years in the Reserves) during the Korean War. He was trained in one of the Navy’s first successful jet-propelled carrier aircraft (the Grumman F9F Panther), earned two Air Medals, survived an ejection after being hit by North Korean anti-aircraft fire, and flew more than 200 different types of aircraft as a test pilot.
Throughout his lifetime of service, Armstrong personified core Navy values. Following his career in the Astronaut Corps, he shunned celebrity, taught engineering, and preferred the relative obscurity he found in his farm outside of Cincinnati; fittingly, a city named for the Roman citizen-soldier whose name is synonymous with leadership, humility, and honor.
Though Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have traditionally been named for Navy heroes, the Ford-class carrier is an appropriate platform upon which to bestow such an honor. Both Presidents Ford and Kennedy (for whom the second Ford-class CVN is named) were Navy veterans, and a USS Neil Armstrong would keep the carriers’ naming convention consistent and show deference to naval heritage. Moreover, these ships would share a unique commonality considering that Kennedy daringly issued the challenge that Armstrong met. Appropriately, it was an aircraft carrier—the USS Hornet (CV-12)—that greeted the lunar voyagers on their return to Earth. What better way to honor this pioneer’s groundbreaking contributions to aviation history than to name the world’s most versatile aviation platform after him?
Current NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr., observed, “As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them.” In our era, there is often a cynical suspicion of heroes and heroic achievements, yet Armstrong lived his life as an exemplar of the best America can do. Like Armstrong, this ship will carry that same message to all corners of the globe.