The passing of Neil Armstrong, an American treasure and icon, seems lost in the steady drumbeat of electoral rhetoric and the 24-hour news cycle. How unfortunate, since he serves as a standard-bearer for what has been so good and right about America. The accomplishment that he represents, the once inconceivable act of landing a man on the moon, demonstrates that even during a period of international tension and national despair we can still rise to meet the greatest of challenges. In so doing, Armstrong personified two incredible ideals: A nation’s ability to unite for the accomplishment of a grand achievement and an individual who remains selfless, putting service to one’s country before personal gains.
Yesterday’s memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral was a fitting send off for one of our Nation’s finest, a naval aviator and true patriot who proudly served his country. The tone was set from the very start, with the playback of President Kennedy’s 1962 address at Rice University in which he committed the Nation to landing a man on the moon. President Kennedy’s speech recalled the monumental challenges that existed in going to the moon but, as he so famously put it, that we choose to do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Technical hurdles were only one part of the problem, as the Nation would require individuals with a truly unique skill set to go safely to the moon and back. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Astronaut Gene Cernan both pointed out that while many were capable of landing on the moon, in retrospect only Armstrong could carry the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a Nation on his shoulders and then, having accomplished such a lofty endeavor, could portray himself as simply an ambassador who represented the hard work and dedication of others.
During the service my thoughts drifted back to elementary school, when teachers would wheel TVs on roller carts into the cafeteria so that students could watch the space shuttle launch. I’ll never forget the palpable silence in the room as everyone collectively held their breath when the last few seconds of the countdown started, only to be broken by the thunderous applause of hundreds of children clapping and cheering with a successful ignition of the booster rockets. These moments resonated around the world. A friend and fellow aviator who attended the service, but who grew up Asia, recounted how his school in Taiwan played a tape of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon as an example of a historic achievement for the world. These were the events that assured so many of us that great achievements were possible. He, like I, learned to dream just a little bit bigger because of Neil Armstrong.
In a time of self-promotion, when our Nation’s youth look to rock stars and celebrities for role models, we should not pass up this opportunity to champion an American Hero who always declined to champion himself.