Vale Neil Armstrong: space pioneer dies

By Fred Watson 27 August 2012
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Space has lost one of its shining stars, says Fred Watson.

FOLLOWING THE PASSING of Neil Armstrong on Saturday at the age of 82, the world of astronomy and space science has been paying tribute to one of its greatest icons. Across the globe, scientists and non-scientists alike have been inspired throughout their lives by Armstrong’s great achievement in 1969.

By becoming the first human to set foot on another celestial body, he touched the lives of everyone who had ever given a thought to our environment in space, and will be greatly missed. His death truly marks the end of an era.

Neil Armstrong will be remembered as a modest, thoughtful individual, who was the consummate pilot in both aviation and spaceflight, and who had an unwavering trust in the technology he worked with.

Moon landing

He displayed great courage in carrying out his duties in the flights of Apollo 11 and Gemini 8, and, earlier, in the X-15 rocket plane. He was the perfect choice of commander for Apollo 11 – absolutely the right man for the job at the right time. Though reclusive in later years, his wisdom was frequently called upon (for example, in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster of 1986), and he never lost his enthusiasm for space exploration. 

Landing humans on the Moon was not just the first great milestone in human space travel, but a pivotal event in human history. It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of the Apollo 11 success, even though the motivation to carry it out was largely political, set against the backdrop of the burgeoning Cold War. It ranks as one of the greatest technical achievements of all time. 

Since that event, science has been overwhelmed with dazzling scientific results from the space programme, and our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and the Universe at large have been transformed as a result.

And, while the budgets of space agencies like NASA may be regarded by some as generous, they are trivial compared with big-ticket items like defence spending. NASA’s total funding over the past 50 years would be consumed in a matter of months by the Pentagon.

Future of human spaceflight

Despite the popular misconception that NASA has pulled out of human space exploration, the future looks bright as the agency turns to new and more viable technologies than the former space shuttle programme.

With commercial US operators already ferrying supplies to the International Space Station, and scheduled to begin ferrying astronauts up and down within a few years, NASA can concentrate on the big ticket items – visits to Mars and the asteroid belt, and, once again, the Moon.

Its flagship project is the four-person Orion module, which will begin test flights in 2014. When that advanced craft first conveys humans into space in the early 2020s, it will owe much to the extraordinary legacy of Neil Armstrong.

Fred Watson is Astronomer-in-Charge of the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Coonabarabran in north-western NSW, and well-known to ABC radio listeners. He has written a regular column in the Australian Geographic journal for many years.