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R.I.P Neil Armstrong: “One Giant Leap for Mankind”

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I just found out that Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, has died at 82. It was odd. I read the words and it seemed unreal. It was only when it started to sink in that the first person to set foot on the moon had died, did the tears start to come. I’ve read a lot of history. Humans have managed a lot of outstanding achievements. Empires, feats of engineering like the Pyramids. The Great Wall of China. Double-entry bookkeeping (as L. Sprague de Camp might offer). But the moon?

I was born in March of 1972. The Gene Cernan left his footprints on the moon in December 1972, when I was an infant of nine months. Since then, in nearly 40 years, we have not been back to the moon. It not only makes me sad, as a fan of science fiction, it seems almost inconceivable.

The Golden Age of science fiction is ripe with stories about humanity heading off to the moon. Or Mars. Most of the stories were pessimistic, predicting the first moon landings in the 1980s or 1990s. We ended up doing it in 1969. It is incredible to me. I wasn’t even born yet, and people 10 people had walked on the moon. Sometimes, when I think about it, it boggles the mind. The not only went into orbit around the Earth; they left orbit, went to the moon, landed on the surface and walked around. In all of human history, in all of the countless billions of human beings whoever lived or died, only 12 people ever walked on the moon. Compared to those odds, throwing a perfect game in baseball looks easy.

There was an optimism during the Second World War and immediately after, that we could do just about anything. Certainly, the Soviet Union putting up Sputnik stirred us in ways that have never quite been replicated since. But it seems to me that science fiction writers of the 1940s and 1950s felt that the moon was an obvious and easy target (Mars, of course, was second in line), and most seemed to feel that we’d be living on the moon before the turn of the century. And perhaps we should have.

Beginning in about 1998, I grew obsessed with the Apollo missions. I had decided–a little late–that I wanted to be an astronaut, and I read every book on the subject that had ever been written. I just so happened that HBO came out with its fantastic (and to this day, in my opinion, its best) miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, and I was hooked. I was living in Studio City, a suburb of Los Angeles at the time, and I really imagined for a while that I could stand on the moon one day. I took flying lessons, and earned my private pilot license in April 2000 in large part because I thought it would help me in my quest to fly in space.

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