Photo: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin Jr. appeared in a cheerful mood as they left the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building to enter the transfer van that takes them to Pad 39 where they will enter their spacecraft looking forward to a moon landing, July 16, 1969, Cape Kennedy, Fla. (AP Photo)
Neil Armstrong's death at 82 immediately changes my thinking from the parochial GOP convention at Tampa, now delayed by a hurricane Isaac and an outbreak of civil emergency worry-warts, to the long forty-three years since I watched Neil Armstrong step off the LEM Eagle, July 20, 1969. I was 21 years old, spending the summer working at Princeton, living in the Tower Club on Nassau Street. The others took up a collection to concoct a vat of vodka punch with green dye to celebrate the moon landing. As I recall, they used a plastic trash can as a punch bowl. I think I drank some of the vodka, not much, as I have not much ever enjoyed parties. My memory also is that it was just the guys who were living in the club that summer. There may have been a girlfriend or two. My sharp memory is the big color TV set to CBS and Walter Cronkite's coverage of the event. Apollo 11 took more than four full days to reach the moon and descend to the surface, so it was not constant watching, just now and again while we carried on with our chores. The last hours were all afternoon and into the late evening Eastern Time. I recall Cronkite's words of relief at the landing on Tranquility Base; and hours later I recall Cronkite repeating what Armstrong had said on the fuzzy video. I do not recall thinking anything unusual about the moment. At 21, everything looks like history and therefore nothing much stands out. Also, the big story for all my college years and afterward was the Vietnam War, not NASA or the Apollo program. The hours after the landing, there was the drama of walking on the moon dust, and then the excitement of the lift-off, would it work, would they be stranded?
I saw Neil Armstrong once more in person, in June 1983, when he spoke at my brother's graduation from Lafayette. It was during the depths of the three-year-long recession that started in the OPEC oil embargo, super inflation and Tehran hostage crisis at the end of the Carter administration. Unemployment reached its post Second War peak of 10.1 in June 1983. Ronald Reagan's presidency at that point was confronting the belligerent Soviets led by the dying Chekhist Yuri Andropov. Not a golden age of great expectation is the summary. I recall Neil Armstrong speaking quietly of America's ability to recover from its troubles and to carry on to success. He spoke of this new generation, these graduates, who would find their way with energy and dignity. It wasn't a speech delivered with any operatic or even rhetorical skill. It was spoken confidently by a man who had survived the Korean War and who had traveled to another planet at the end of a miracle of engineering, risk, philosophy. There was spontaneous applause from the families. I half-remember a cheer for the words of promise. Neil Armstrong is gone. Neil Armstrong's confidence that American can recover from its troubles is most needed again. So is the matter-of-fact feeling of success of July 20, 1969.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong received the first Congressional Space Medal of Honor from President Jimmy Carter, assisted by Captain Robert Peterson. Armstrong, one of six astronauts to be presented the medal during ceremonies held in the Vehicle Assembly Building, was awarded for his performance during the Gemini 8 mission and the Apollo 11 mission when he became the first human to set foot upon the moon.