Neil Armstrong’s death has been reported today, at the age of 82. Although—he being the first man on the moon and all—people the world over knew his name, he did not have any great public profile. The obituaries are describing him as modest and private, and surely he was both of those things.
So there cannot be for most Americans a sense of personal loss as there might be when someone famous but seemingly-very-familiar dies; Elvis Presley, say, or Andy Griffith, or Michael Jackson. Yet I think some might have a nagging feeling that something has slipped away that we might not have fully appreciated while we had it around.
In this—since most of us didn’t know Neil Armstrong as a personality—I’m referring to what Neil Armstrong seems, especially with hindsight, to have represented.
He and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon in 1969. Isn’t it so hard to conceive that forty-three years ago the United States’ space program achieved this incredible thing? These days, people absentmindedly leave at the bar small devices containing technology that makes everything NASA possessed in the 1960s look like something from the Flintstones; yet, today, in 2012, the idea of the United States putting humans back on the moon—as a stepping-stone to Mars or anything else—appears almost outrageously fanciful and out-of-reach.
Nevertheless, they did it, back then, and this guy, Neil Armstrong, seems to have taken that “one small step” in stride, not endlessly exploiting it for sponsorship deals, book contracts, speaking tours and so on, but largely just going about his life afterwards, doing serious things but avoiding the glaring limelight that his moment in the moonlight surely earned him for the rest of his life.
And now he is gone, that particular human being who did that very particular thing on July 20th, 1969.
Quite a few of us have this nagging sense that we are living through a crucial crossroads in American history. We wonder whether it is to be a time of mourning for something lost which will not be regained, or whether America truly will prove to be the exception of her early promise and rise above the kind of complacency, laziness and decadence which has consumed those societies which previously flattered themselves with the notion that they were set upon some higher ground.
Will history look back on the age of America and observe that 1969 was in fact the high-water mark, the moment when that nation known as the United States left the world in her wake before embracing a fitful but inevitable decline? It’s an open question. Anyone who tells you that they know the answer is lying. Still, we get up every morning and on our best days we still hope to lasso not only the moon but also the stars. Who can know?
Three years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the incomparable American singer Frank Sinatra recorded an album titled Moonlight Sinatra.
It was the last of the great albums he recorded with the gifted arranger and conductor named Nelson Riddle. For anyone else, recording an album of songs concerning the moon would be a gimmick, even if a charming one. Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, in 1966, took a gimmicky idea, and out of it produced an unlikely masterpiece of popular music, even if it was largely ignored at the time and remains underrated today. Sinatra, great as he was, would never hit those heights of taste and talent again. Not that he knew that then. Via YouTube, below, from that album, is “Moon Love.” It just seems an apt tune today.