Friday, August 31, 2012

Neil Armstrong

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong stood atop the pinnacle of human achievement.

It's been said that landing on the moon was about the most audacious thing imaginable in the 1960s. We had to invent all kinds of technologies, master extra-terrestrial techniques in simulated environments, and build equipment to a level of quality such that they could withstand the harsh environment of space. We did it with scant first-hand experience, and limited component and systemic testing.

In the years following July 1969, we put another 10 people on the lunar surface, and hundreds more into low earth orbit. Humanity has produced three long-term space stations. We have a fleet of satellites orbiting the Earth, moon, and sun gathering scientific data ranging from the salinity of the oceans to fluctuations in the Van Allen belts. We've got four that are leaving the solar system, heading for interstellar space, two of which we still have contact with.

And that's not all. Since that first landing, we've launched space telescopes, developed reusable spacecraft, and landed rovers on Mars. We even launched a probe that collided with the moon so that another probe in orbit could study the chemical composition of the debris. These are no small accomplishments.

But as aggressive as these things are, the Mars Curiosity landing brings back audacious. It slowed from 13,000 mph to zero in 7 minutes in the thin Martian atmosphere. It did this using thrusters to control the approach despite reaching temperatures in excess of 1,600 degrees. It deployed a parachute at 9g to slow down, then detached the heat shield, then disposed of the parachute. It then used rockets to control the descent, changing both horizontal and vertical velocity to align with the planet's surface. But it saved the best for last: it's party piece was to cover the last 20 meters using a sky-crane to lower the rover to the surface.

And that's just the start. It crawls. It shoots photos. It vapourizes rocks to determine their chemical composition. It transmits all it learns back to the Earth.

Of course, the ultimate human experience is for people, not robots, to journey into space. And the Curiosity rover lacks the personification of the lunar missions because it's not one man, but thousands of people.

But that's how Mr. Armstrong wanted it. Much has been made about what he chose to do after his astronaut days, leading the reclusive life of academic and farmer. He didn't want the spotlight and didn't want to be a curiosity himself. But it's no accident that unlike all other missions, there are no astronaut names on the Apollo 11 mission patch. He was party to that decision, precisely because he realized before the event took place that setting foot on another celestial body was an achievement by humanity and not a single person.

Personification is why so many people today believe our scientific progress has receded when in fact it has advanced beyond our wildest dreams. We associate Mr. Armstrong with human greatness. That is justified: Mr. Armstrong, like all astronauts, is genius and guts incarnate. But our achievements today are no less remarkable. Just look at the SDO imagery if there's any doubt.

We idolize Mr. Armstrong because we get to bask in his reflected glory as fellow members of the human species.

It is selfish on our part to hero-worship.

Mr. Armstrong did not want that.

Farewell Neil Armstrong, and we thank you.