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A is for Armstrong, ambition, attitude, audacity and achievement

September 1, 2012

The Apollo space programme has always resonated with me, I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the black & white images on the television screen. Its a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year

I’ve been fascinated by the photography and science of the moon and the Apollo programme ever since. Check out this NASA web site, which recreates the Apollo XI moon landing also a couple of books: How NASA builds teams, an insight as to how NASA recruits and develops teams, by Charles Pellerin, and Moondust by Andrew Smith, a collection of intimate interviews and life studies with the 12 men who have walked on the moon. There’s some great video footage and narrative on this web site

I’ve also been at a launch of a Space Shuttle, and if I get the cash together, I’m also on one of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flights. But back to Armstrong, my memories, 43 years on, are as vague as the flickering, black-and-white television images of the time. But I remember when Armstrong emerged from the Eagle, a ghostly figure wearing a large motorcycle helmet, moving in slow motion descending the ladder to step onto the moon.

President Kennedy first presented the moon landing proposal to the US public in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. However, his more famous speech was on September 12, 1962 at Rice University: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. We have vowed we will not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. We intend to be first.

Kennedy’s bold statement of ambition – that anything is possible if you want to achieve it, is truly memorable, and shows how a team of people can unite behind a vision and achieve something unique. I was brought up on Star Trek, Tomorrows World and Dr Who, and loved the focus on space, the final frontier, to boldly go where no man has gone before, and I always thought that in my lifetime we would all be travelling to the Moon

I saw the historic moment when a man first stepped on to the moon’s surface, like the first footfall of Christopher Columbus on American soil, a moment that changed the course of human history. In any case, in 1969, even live TV broadcasts from the other side of the Atlantic were impressive and rare. This was a broadcast from the Moon. The future had arrived in front of our eyes, promising a new era in which anything seemed possible. The human race had conquered space and there seemed no limits to what might be achieved in the next decade or so

I mourn Armstrong’s passing, he was a modest, intelligent, well-balanced man, not at all Moon-struck. Often when I’m outside on cold, crisp winter evenings walking the dog, I look up at the Moon and marvel at its contours, brightness and mystery. I suppose millions of people all over the world do the same thing. Armstrong was small step for man; a giant leap for Moon-kind.

These days Armstrong would barely have landed on Earth before being inundated with offers from reality TV shows (I’m an astronaut, get me out of here), and he hasn’t signed an autograph since 1994, having become dismayed at being treated as a celebrity. The announcement of his death feels like a coda to a chapter of my life, I felt similar poignancy with the death of John Peel, Joe Strummer and Paul Samuleson. It’s ironic that Armstrong died just as the US is celebrating the spectacular success of a new space venture with the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

When he was 14, his family moved to Wapakoneta, Ohio, where Armstrong began taking the steps towards his dream career. At 16 he successfully completed his first solo flight and earned his pilot’s license – he learned to fly before he learned to drive. After graduating from high school in 1947, he joined Purdue University’s Aeronautical Engineering program through the US Navy – graduating in 1955 as a Naval aviator with a degree in engineering.

Armstrong became the first man on the moon because he had arrived at the head of the queue of 20 highly experienced and motivated astronauts. They had been taking it in turns to conduct the 22 manned spaceflights needed to learn the techniques for travelling to the Earth’s nearest neighbour. When NASA embarked on its second astronaut training programme in 1962, he was one of the nine test pilots chosen.

As the commander of the US Apollo 11 spacecraft, accompanied by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the pilot of the Eagle lunar landing module, and Michael Collins, pilot of the Columbia command module, while Armstrong would be in command, Aldrin would be the first to step on the moon. Armstrong would follow the naval tradition of being the last to leave the ship. So it came as a shock when the flight plan issued ahead of the launch showed that Armstrong would be first out.

NASA officials had suddenly realised that the first man on the moon would become immortal in the public’s eyes. The grave Armstrong, they realised, was much more suited to the role than Aldrin, a brilliant and outspoken mathematician, always liable to challenge and disagree with authority.

Apollo 11 took off 16 July, and four days later the Eagle descended near the south-western edge of the Sea of Tranquillity. Six and a half hours later, Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module, the first human being to set foot on the moon. Armstrong did not like to be called a hero, his standard riposte to such accusations was to point out that it required the efforts of hundreds of thousands of backroom engineers, mathematicians and technicians to make space flight possible. He was right, at the height of its efforts, NASA was spending 4.4% of the American government’s entire budget, employing 400,000 workers.

The achievement of his crew, relayed live on television, held the entire planet spellbound. On their return to Earth, the astronauts were mobbed. Schools, buildings and roads were named after them. Medals were showered upon them. A whirlwind post-flight tour took them to 25 countries in 35 days. Half a century after the event, with the deaths of many of its participants, the Apollo project is beginning to fade from living memory and pass into the history books. It was one of the mightiest achievements of the potent combination of big government and big science. Even now, all these years later, it’s still amazing what those people did when you think about the scale of achievement: First man on the moon.

Being first to achieve something makes you unique, a groundbreaker, it’s all about your passion and desire to leave your mark – quite literally a footprint, a legacy to inspire others. The edge is not in a gifted birth, a high IQ, or in talent, but rather the winner’s edge is all in the ambition, attitude and audacity, and daring to dream.

In the end, being first and achieving all your goals doesn’t happen all the time. Still, I think you should dream big dreams, as long as you’re willing to work hard and with honesty toward those dreams. Never look back and say, if only I had done this or that, I could have reached my dreams. When you have a dream, your first and only goal should be to prepare yourself as best you can and try your best. That’s all anyone can ask. I think this captures the ethos of Armstrong, he had a vision of success and worked hard to achieve it.

Let’s face it, nobody owes you a living. What you achieve, or fail to achieve in your lifetime is directly related to what you do or fail to do. No one chooses his parent or childhood, but you can choose your own direction. Everyone has problems and obstacles to overcome, but what are your ambitions? Time plays no favourites and will pass whether you act or not.

Armstrong dared to dream and took risks. Life has its twists and turns – Armstrong was nearly killed twice in his NASA training – but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, the silver tint of the clouds of doubt, and you never can tell how close you are. He lived his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, a decade dedicated to training and preparation before Apollo XI,  absorbing the set backs as gaining experience for handling the future challenges he knew he would have to overcome tomorrow – when the Eagle landed, it has just four seconds of fuel left.

Tomorrow…are you preparing yourself for tomorrow, or do you only want to follow in the footsteps of others, and never want to experience the greatness of personal victory? I’m minded by two quotes, which capture Armstrong’s spirit:

When I was a young man I observed that nine out of the ten things I did were failures. Not wanting to be a failure, I did ten times more work – Roosevelt

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. T.S. Eliot.

Armstrong flew in space twice, once in the Gemini program and then Apollo. In both cases, the flights stand out as noteworthy in NASA’s history. He made an indelible mark on our world. There are two things to aim for in life : The first is to get what you what, The second to enjoy it when you get it, and he did just that, but quietly with dignity, comfortable in himself that he had achieved his lifetime ambition.

Celebrating the passing of a man who captured the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur,  the technology entrepreneur Steve Blank has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit:

We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Finally, some words from Armstrong’s family on how they would like us to remember the great man: For those who may ask what they can do to honour Neil, we have a simple request. Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

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