One Small Step, One Giant Footprint

I never met Neil Armstrong.

And, to be honest, I’m glad.

I’ve shaken hands with his Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin, and had a long conversation with him on the phone. I’ve eaten cookies with Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean in his kitchen. Apollo 16’s John Young cussed at my ex-wife, kinda. Of the now eight living men who walked on the moon, I’ve met or been to talks by seven of them.

And I was only two degrees of separation from Armstrong. My co-authors on Homesteading Space, Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin, were contemporaries with him in the astronaut corps — Owen was even the astronaut on capcom duty in Mission Control while the Apollo 11 crew was napping on the lunar surface. It’s been a secret point of pride of mine that I’ve had Neil’s private e-mail address, from a message we both received, in my iPhone contacts for years; I would never use it and even now I wouldn’t share it, but it was kind of incredible to me that I had it.

But I never met Neil.

To be fair, it’s not like I was turning down invitations. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure if I’d made a priority of it, I could have at least seen him speak. For all the public perception that Armstrong became a recluse, the truth is remained an active and involved advocate of spaceflight throughout his life. I had friends who were able to see him, but I never tried to go with them.

My lack of desire to see or meet Armstrong was nothing against him. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Neil Armstrong is a legend. A historical figure. He was the one person alive during my lifetime whose name will endure alongside Columbus and Shakespeare and Lincoln and Caesar and Plato.

We live in a time when our legends are all too human. Too many of the giants of our age engage quite readily in their flaws, and the pervasive media makes that too well known. (There is an irony to Neil’s death coming just days after today’s other best-known Armstrong made headlines for a very different reason.)

And yet Neil Armstrong carried himself with dignity. Decades after the deed that put him in the history books, decades after his nation finished with him and gave him back to his life, he still conducted himself in a way fitting for his place in history.

He’d have been the first to tell you that he was just a man, and, yet, it was the way he lived as a man that made him a worthy legend.

I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to meet giants and heroes, astronauts and authors and musicians and politicans. And meeting them tarnished none of them. But it did make them a little smaller. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with that. Spend any time with B.B. King, for example, and you’ll be amazed at how down-to-Earth he really is. It’s easy to imagine chatting with him at Target while buying groceries.

Here’s a great secret in life — everybody’s human. And sometimes it can be nice to get to know the human side of a story.

But Neil may have been the last larger-than-life legend I had left; a legend untarnished by having media or personal experience force it into reality. He was the last giant in my world. The last myth.

I didn’t want to meet him, because I wasn’t sure if I was ready to live in a world without legends.

And now, he’s gone. He no longer belongs to this age, but only to history.

And I was blessed to have lived at a time to have shared with him one of the worlds he walked.