The Earth that Neil Armstrong left forever last month was a different planet than the one he re-entered in 1969.
They won’t be making any more like him: a Navy test pilot with middling grades in his aeronautical engineering classes, husband of a home economics major, a man with so little media training that he bungled the first words spoken from the surface of the moon. The philosophy of his work was primal: “we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream,” he once deadpanned at a press conference. I don’t even think they let people have last names like “Armstrong” anymore — a little too nail on the head.
A few weeks ago I saw a documentary by the rock photographer Norman Seeff called Triumph of the Dream. It follows the Mars rover team through the development of Spirit and Opportunity in 2004; most of those people also make up the team that landed Curiosity last month. While they are certainly the embodiment of modern sci-fi cum sci-reality, these people are definitively not the types of heroes I’m used to. Think Polos and khakis, not spacesuits; a bunch of D&D nerds exploring the depths of space by remote control. In an alcohol-dampened dark alley they could most certainly have their asses beat senseless by the Apollo crew. Here’s Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars missions.
What? In another time, this guy would have been called a lunatic, teased into submission, or even burned at the stake, not given the keys to Mars. He brings the foppishly beatnik side of Woody Allen to a meeting with the universal vision of Galileo and the wild-eyed determination of Charles Manson, a caricature so full of geek rage-determination that you can almost taste the schoolyard bullying on his breath. In short, he’s someone I can relate to. Kind of.
“The space age,” says the White House’s National Space Policy of the United States of America, “began as a race for security and prestige between two superpowers.” That’s putting it a little mildly. In 1957 Americans were scared shitless beneath a black sky that housed an ominously-bleeping alloy beach ball and, four years later, an actual man. Both of them traveled around the Earth in about 90 minutes and neither one spoke much English.