‘…and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.’ It is not the phrase for which Neil Armstrong, who sadly died this weekend, will always be remembered. But it is the one that perhaps best sums up not just Armstrong’s vision but also the sense that to be human is forever to be reaching out to grasp what may seem beyond us. And that once we stop doing this, we diminish ourselves as humans.
The moon landing was one of the defining moments of twentieth century, which was, as Phil Platt puts it on the Bad Astronomy blog,
a defining, crystallizing slice of time that confirmed that we humans had become a space faring race. One world could not and would not contain us, and the sky itself was no longer the limit… The end of homo sapiens terrestrialis and the birth of homo sapiens cosmos.
Few people more embodied, or better articulated, the sense that ‘One world could not and would not contain us, and the sky itself was no longer the limit’ than Armstrong himself. ‘The important achievement of Apollo’, he once suggested, ‘was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited.’ It was an optimism he expressed well at the end of a 1970 BBC interview with Patrick Moore, just ten months after the moon landing, when asked ‘Do you think, from your knowledge of the moon, having been there, that it is going to be possible in the foreseeable future to set up scientific bases there on anything like a large scale?':
Oh, I am quite certain that we will have such bases in our lifetime, somewhat like the Antarctic stations and similar scientific outposts – continually manned. Although, certainly there is the problem of the environment, the vacuum, the high and low temperatures of day and night. Still, in all, in many ways, it’s more hospitable than Antarctica might be. There are no storms, no snow, no high winds, no unpredictable weather phenomena that we’re yet aware of, and the gravity is a very pleasant kind of place to work in – better than here on earth. I think it would be quite a pleasant place to do scientific work, and quite practical.
The whole interview is worth watching, including Armstrong’s wonderful description of what it was like to be on the lunar surface:
Of course, almost half a century on, it is an optimism that feels so terribly naive. That tells us more about our age than it does about Armstrong’s vision. As Armstrong himself put it, ‘I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did.’
We should remember Armstrong not just for what he did but also for that spirit of optimism, for the belief that ‘One world could not and would not contain us, and the sky itself was no longer the limit’.