Every generation has its icons. These people represent defining moments and outstanding achievements. They become the symbols of something greater than who they are and inspire that generation to become greater than who they are. They are part of the institutional and cultural collective that speak to us and hold our ideals.
Neil Armstrong, the NASA astronaut who took “one giant leap for mankind” when he was the first person to step on the moon, died Saturday, August 25, 2012. He was one of those icons for my generation.
I remember President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon, and bring him back to Earth, by the end of the decade. My father was one of those NASA aeronautical engineers making that a reality. Modern technology (television!) allowed us to watch all of those Apollo space launches and landings. I was one of the 500 million people watching the moon the moon landing on July 20, 1969. I have the black-and-white pictures I took off our black-and-white television capturing for myself that historical moment.
There was a lot of unrest in the 1960s. The Viet Nam War and racial and gender inequality challenged our social and political systems. With so much dividing the nation, the space program was uniting the nation and inspiring the younger generation who became the bedrock of Silicon Valley and technology companies like Apple.
While Neil Armstrong did not like being referred to as a hero or icon, he championed NASA and the space program up until the end. In an Australian interview this past spring he said:
NASA has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve. It’s sad that we are turning the program in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people. And that’s a major concern to me.
It’s a major concern for me too! What do my granddaughters have to aspire to in a political environment where one major faction is hostile to science and technology and education and climate change? Where we encourage and foster imagination and exploration because what we learn helps us ask better questions that lead to new insights which causes us to ask yet tougher questions which informs better solutions.
My faith teaches me that in death is life. Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and those like them, inspired the succeeding generation while fulfilling their own calling. The torch has been passed. It’s now up to us.
Photo credit: NASA