The day I almost met Neil Armstrong

I don’t spend much time pondering regrets, but I will forever
rue the day I felt too shy to approach Neil Armstrong and thank
him for the moon landing.

It was July 20, 2003; the 34th anniversary of the Apollo 11
touchdown. My friend Andrew and I had gone to Dayton, Ohio, to
an airshow commemorating the centenary of the Wright brothers’
first powered flight. We toured a Lockheed Constellation with a
1940s interior, watched a modern F-15 jet fighter fly in
formation with a Second World War P-51 Mustang, and rode in a
1931 de Havilland biplane.

And then we saw Neil.

It was our final morning in Dayton, and we decided to visit the
Wright brothers’ grave in Woodland Cemetery. There was to be a
flyover by a Wright Model B, weather permitting; first flown in
1910, it’s a delicate bird. There were to be remarks from local
clergy. But we arrived to news of two previously unannounced
special guests: John Glenn, the first American to orbit the
Earth; and the First Man himself.

It was a gorgeous day, and a tiny crowd gathered around the
grave. Wilbur had died of typhoid at the age of 45, in 1912;
Orville passed away in 1948 aged 76, three months after Chuck
Yeager broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered X-1.

Glenn said their bodies were buried in Dayton, but not their
spirits. Armstrong, his voice quivering with emotion — this was
just a few months after the Columbia space shuttle had
disintegrated on re-entry, killing seven astronauts — paid
tribute to the two as the original engineer-test pilots (which
is how he thought of himself), and urged us to remember the
men, not just the achievement.

Standing there in the cemetery, surrounded by summer trees,
deep green lawns, birdsong, the far-off sound of a jet plane
passing, I had a sudden vision.

As the memorial broke up, Glenn and Armstrong walked slowly
away, like the old men they were. I could have approached them.
Could have told Neil that when I was born, 34 years ago that
summer, he and fellow travellers Buzz Aldrin and Michael
Collins were still in a NASA quarantine facility as a
protection against bringing “moon germs” back to Earth. That
I’d never looked at a moon untouched by his footprints.

From as soon as I was able to appreciate the historic event —
and it was already history when I was born — I have tried and
failed to grasp the magnitude of the accomplishment, and why it
has always had such a hold on me. The best explanation that I
can find is that it was a defining moment in the history of our
species, and the only such one we know, down to the second:
4:17:39 p.m. EDT, Sunday, July 20, 1969.

We’re aware that humans left the continent on which they first
evolved. There must have been a First Woman or Man to set foot
on North American soil, probably having travelled over the top
of the world. We know that someone discovered fire, invented
language and, much later, writing, without which we never would
have gotten off the planet. But these moments are lost in time.

If (a big if) we don’t stumble back from that first step,
future humans will forever count the moon as among the defining
moments in history. And we were lucky enough to have witnessed
it! (Or, for me and anyone younger, almost witnessed it.)

It often seems as though we have already staggered backwards;
we couldn’t go back to the moon tomorrow if we wanted to. Since
the last mission returned in 1972, no human has travelled
further than about 400 km from Earth – about the distance
between Toronto and Ottawa. The moon doesn’t even have a
terrestrial counterpart in distance – going there is the
equivalent of going around the world nine-and-a-half times.

But it took millennia for humans to fully rove the Earth. And
the best description I’ve ever heard for the unlikelihood of
the Apollo missions — so unlikely that many otherwise
intelligent people choose to believe they never happened at all
— is that it felt like someone snipped a decade from a future
century and stitched it into the 20th. We’ll get back.

In the meantime, it’s been my pleasure to have interviewed Buzz
Aldrin, second man on the moon, and Jim Lovell, one of the
first to orbit it, and one of only three men to do it twice. It
was my pleasure (and to my wife’s chagrin) to purchase a tiny
lunar module tie clip that flew to within 10 km of the moon on
Apollo 10.

But I never did get to tell the First Man of my gratitude for
his job as the vanguard of our next great step. I shall instead
be content with having seen one of his rare public appearances.
As I wrote in my journal that evening: “Standing there in the
cemetery, surrounded by summer trees, deep green lawns,
birdsong, the far-off sound of a jet plane passing, I had a
sudden vision — of a similar dais, similar dignitaries, a
similar crowd at the grave, at the 200th anniversary of powered
flight, AD 2103. The names being spoken would include the first
people back to the moon, the first ones to Mars. In the green
and bright Ohio morning, we would remember the pioneers not
only of flight, but turn our thoughts to those on the red
planet, the new world. What a day it will be.”

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