The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon-landing has seen an outpouring of an unusual kind of nostalgia – a fond look back to a past where the promised future looked fundamentally different. 1969 was not all in all a particularly Utopian year (the Vietnam War wore on, trouble erupted in Ulster, Hurricane Camille killed 248 people, the Manson murders, Colonel Gadaffi came to power …), but there were still some moments – the start of the first SALT nuclear-disarmament talks, the Woodstock festival – that offered a more positive note.

But the uplifting moments and events of 1969 seem, in retrospect, to have been mostly scientific or technical. During the year, the first message was sent over ARPANET (the forerunner of the internet),  the Boeing 747 jumbo jet and Concorde made their debuts, the first human eye transplant was performed,  and the now hugely popular computer operating system Unix was invented. But all this pales in comparison to Neil Armstrong taking ‘one giant leap for mankind’.

Looking back from the perspective that 40 years allows – although not the archives, as BBC/ITV footage has long been lost – there are interesting lessons in leadership. One of these is arguably the difference between leading and pioneering: Neil Armstrong may have been the first man to step on non-terrestial ground, but he has shown little or no taste for the ‘hero’ and ‘legend’ status that this automatically bestowed upon him. Often described as ‘increasingly reclusive’, there is another view of Armstrong – that of a private and reserved man who was (and is) more interested in the mission at hand than in personal glory. Or, in his words:

Yeah, I wasn’t chosen to be first. I was just chosen to command that flight. Circumstance put me in that particular role. That wasn’t planned by anyone.” 

Yet this would be to paint a dedicated and committed man as limited in outlook, which would be entirely unfair. Another quote from the man himself might be the best testimony:

The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited.”

Since his historic footfall, only another 11 men  – just three more than have been married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, to give an undeniably earthbound comparison – have set foot on the moon, the last of them – Eugene Cernan – just 29 months after Armstrong in December 1972. Few of their names are widely remembered. And by then, the world had moved on. As MSNBC reported, in an article about NASA in 2005:

Before Project Apollo had achieved its first lunar landing, NASA began charting a future that included orbital outposts — space stations — stretching from low Earth orbit to the Moon. The massive Saturn 5 rocket was to launch the space stations, and a reusable space plane was to transport the astronauts back and forth.

NASA’s early space shuttle concepts envisioned a two-stage fully reusable vehicle capable of taking off and landing like an airplane. “That’s a far cry from what we got,” Logsdon said.

By 1970, the White House had lost its appetite for large space programs, Logsdon said. Production of the Saturn 5 was ended, and NASA was told to forget about a space station for the time being.”

Even the most laudable project – especially a publicly-funded one – can fall victim to changes in national circumstance (the US entered a recession in 1969, for example), and momentum for the Space Program was in many ways lost: ‘first man to step on the moon’ is a hard act to follow, and – for the public – following with another 11 men cannot compete in terms of dramatic tension, no matter what the scientific gains.

Back in 2005, Armstrong finally consented to becoming the subject of an exhaustive biography, First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, written by the historian, James Hansen. The book suggested that NASA, mindful of the unavoidable tidal wave of publicity that would befall whoever took that historic first step, chose Armstrong as a restrained, controlled and focused character rather than the subsequent second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. (Aldrin – a far more out-going personality – has, compared with follow moonwalkers, led a more volatile life since his return to earth, having endured both alcoholism and depression, yet remains probably the strongest advocate of a renewed US program of space exploration.)

Both Armstrong and Aldrin are part of a tiny group of human beings who – in the most literal sense possible – share a unique perspective on life on Earth. As James Irwin, Apollo 15 astronaut and eighth man to walk on the moon, said about his feelings on seeing our planet from far into space:

That beautiful warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.”

The two men make a fascinating dichotomy, and NASA’s choice has equally fascinated many commentators. To pick just one recent example, Rupert Cornwall wrote in The Independent:

The choice, some would complain, has backfired. A more outgoing and self-publicising figure, they argue, might have kept Nasa more firmly in the spotlight, and speeded the development of America’s space programme. But in a deeper sense, Armstrong has been the perfect ambassador for the great Moon adventure that, over the decades, has retained both an epic majesty and a simple human dignity.”

Bear in mind that the ‘space race’ between the US and the then USSR was also managed in a peaceful way by both countries (although some questioned the appropriateness of planting the US flag on the moon – Armstrong reportedly didn’t express an opinion either way), and perhaps Armstrong’s humility and reserve since the mission can be seen as personifying NASA’s mission statement: “For the benefit of all”. (As can, in a different way, the very impressive list of spin-off technologies that arose from the larger programme.) Neil Armstrong may remain enigmatic rather than truly charismatic, but he may just fit Rupert Cornwall’s description of him as ‘the finest ambassador of all’.

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