published August 30, 2012

Remembering Neil Armstrong's Contributions

- Katie M. Shade

On Saturday, August 26, 2012, Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82. As commander of Apollo 11, Armstrong holds the distinction of being the first man to walk on the moon, though he was a veteran test pilot and astronaut before landing the lunar module Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility. The successful flight of Armstrong and his crewmates, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, culminated a national effort famously announced by President Kennedy to transport astronauts from the earth to the moon and back.

For years following the historic flight, Armstrong shied away from the fame thrust upon him by his work. Yet, he remained an identifiable voice in education and science policy even after he left the astronaut corps. After leaving the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1970s, he served as a Professor of Aerospace at the University of Cincinnati. His alma mater, Purdue University, dedicated its newest engineering building in his honor. Armstrong Hall houses premier facilities for training the next generation of scientists, engineers and policy makers. Mental Floss recently published a collection of six of his letters. These letters beautifully illustrate his intelligence, grace and his comprehensive understanding of the engineering that was necessary to travel to the moon and return, successfully. In one of those letters, Armstrong advised schoolchildren from Troy, Michigan, that

"Through books you will meet poets and novelists whose creations will fire your imagination. You will meet the great thinkers who will share with you their philosophies, their concepts of the world, of humanity and of creation. You will learn about events that have shaped our history, of deeds both noble and ignoble. All of this knowledge is yours for the taking... Your library is a storehouse for mind and spirit. Use it well."

Armstrong's "small steps" were made possible through great technological achievements, but the "great leap" for mankind is something that is appreciated best by those who have mined the storehouses of "mind and spirit."

A few weeks ago as the SENCER community gathered in San Jose, Curiosity landed on Mars. The aptly-named Curiosity reignites a sense of purpose that many felt as the world watched in awe on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong took that first small step. We can hope that Curiosity's discoveries will fire the imaginations of students who will excel in science, math and technology courses and whose deeds will indelibly shape our history. Although Armstrong won't be around to see one of those inspired students take a small step onto the surface of Mars, he'd likely be proud that someone else may join him in holding the distinction of becoming the first person to walk on another celestial body.