Few people, among a population of 7 billion, ever have an opportunity to be the first human being to set foot in a new world. Brave, humble Neil Armstrong was the right person to take that step.
When Armstrong made the first footprint on the moon in the summer of 1969, all of America cheered, partly because Armstrong and the Apollo space program were ours. The flag Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin planted on the lunar surface bore stars and stripes, not a hammer and sickle. The nation was proud.
On that day, everyone wanted to be Neil Armstrong, who, looking back, seemed so very young.
Americans celebrated, too, because the accomplishment seemed sure to be the beginning of an era in which the stars truly were the limit.
Parents and teachers emphasized the value of math, science and invention. Imagine, they said, the exacting calculations required to settle a landing module gently on a moving object only a quarter the size of Earth nearly a quarter of a million miles away. Imagine traveling so far in a capsule the size of a station wagon,, and then imagine stepping outside, on the moon! Imagine weightlessness. Imagine a place to live in space. Imagine going further.
Few who heard Armstrongs words or saw the fuzzy, jerky images sent from so far away have forgotten the excitement of those moments. Those who now claim the whole production, from launch to landing, from first step to splashdown, was faked have miscalculated the enormity of the accomplishment. The dreams Armstrong and his colleagues inspired have propelled two generations of innovation.
In 1969, the trajectory of the space program had been steep. Only seven years had passed since John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and only 12 since the Sputnik dog, Laika. Men at that time, only men had died in the name of this progress, including the Apollo 1 astronauts.
The potential seemed obvious, and almost limitless. Surely the moon had useful resources. Surely other celestial bodies were within reach, and surely we had reason to aim for them. The United States seem destined to travel, and perhaps conquer and colonize, the universe.
In the 44 years since Armstrongs historic step, progress has slowed. Just ten more Americans walked on the moon. Space shuttles carried 355 people, from 16 nations, into space. Forty-nine of them were women. Fourteen of them died on their missions.
Probes were sent farther into space, sending back information that could have been gathered no other way. Experiments were conducted, data collected and analyzed, and fantastic views of space made available to Earthbound enthusiasts. Right now, photos from a Mars rover are fascinating people worldwide.
Regardless of what came after the first lunar landing, and regardless of what is still to come, Armstrongs first step was indeed a giant step for mankind, in no small part because it demonstrated that science and courage combined could accomplish great things.
That is a heritage that the United States should celebrate and continue to develop. Americans owe a debt to Neil Armstrong, and he would say that the best way to repay it is to keep dreaming, keep daring, and keep studying.