Regardless of how one may feel about the Space Age, the reticent Midwesterner who passed away Saturday was an American hero if ever there was one. Prior to his historic race with the Soviets’ Lunik 15 robot, Neil Armstrong flew 78 combat missions over Korea and test-piloted the famed X-15 rocket plane; as mission commander for Gemini 8, he demonstrated what Tom Wolfe would call “the right stuff” by regaining control of his spacecraft after a dangerous thruster malfunction had set it tumbling end over end.
It is an understatement to say I am no longer a card-carrying member of the National Space Society, yet upon learning of Armstrong’s death I find myself remembering the one opportunity I had to have lunch with David White, a Shakespeare scholar then teaching at the Naval Academy. During our conversation Dr. White pointed out that at the end of time not only individuals will be judged, but peoples too.
And it’s comforting to know, he added, that when judgment comes America will have at least two great things to its credit: Melville’s Moby Dick, and the Moon landing.