By Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
I understand little about science and less about math. However, many of my heroes are men and women of science and math. And I don’t use the word “hero” as a platitude. A hero is someone who changes the world for the better by taking on a problem or by risking something great. A hero is a meta individual, someone who has an original moment in the world, and after that moment, everything is changed and viewed differently. Remember reading Joseph Campbell in college? But Campbell was talking about myths, about lore, and about legends.
I’m speaking of the tactile, of the real, of those walking among us.
One of my heroes died this past Saturday, August 25, 2012.
Neil Alden Armstrong changed the world. It could have been any of the team of well-trained men who were in the Apollo space program, but it was Neil Armstrong who set foot on another body in the celestial sphere—he walked on the moon. How profound is that statement? Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He was the first to do it, and he did it with what he termed a literal small step, but a figurative large leap.
There are athletes who come and go, and soldiers who are courageous, and men and women of state who alter the course of history by signing a document, or by going to war, or by stopping a war, or, more rarely—sadly—by helping someone. But Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon. I appreciate that the work of NASA continues, and the significance of Curiosity’s mission on the surface of Mars is not lost on any of us. But a man walking on the moon—now that is a real game-changer.
I was a little boy—six years old—in 1969. Somewhere in my mother and father’s house in Memphis, Tennessee, in an old photo album, there is a picture my dad took of my little brother, Patrick, and me in front of the television set the night of the lunar landing. I have not seen the picture in a while, but there we are, as I remember it, me on the floor in my pajamas, my little brother in a baby seat beside me, the massive RCA console television there behind us with these men and this contraption and this far-away sphere that was being traversed for this virgin moment, this conquest of science and math, this feat of engineering, courage, and wonder.
Childhood is a blur. College is a blur. Adulthood is a tide that subsumes us, turns us into bill-paying, career-driven, myopic automatons hurtling toward our known end. But every now and then, there is a moment that changes everything into magic—a truly transcendent moment.
That moment was July 20, 1969.
That was the day—in my world, anyway, and when I grew old enough to think about it and to understand the resonance attached to the event—that people emerged from the swamps and the wars and the rotten minutiae, wiped the mud and blood off themselves, and grew into the universe just a little bit. That was the day that people saw what thinking could do. I was there. I saw it on television.
I was only a child, but everyone knew the importance of that moment. It was the day that the whole world saw it on television, really, and the day we all wished we were with those brave, smart men. That was the day everything changed.
That was the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Neil Alden Armstrong, / Louis Glanzman / Acrylic and casein on Masonite, 1969 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine / © Louis Glanzman