Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong: American Pioneer

"Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received—hatred." –Ayn Rand

If American astronaut Neil Armstrong's first step upon the face of the lunar surface can be counted alongside the first steps of other men with unborrowed visions, we can take comfort in knowing that the response that Armstrong received was not hatred. Indifference, yes, to the larger goal of human space travel, for once the euphoria from the Apollo 11 moon shot wore, government funding to the architects of Armstrong's triumph would be reduced to a pale shadow of its former glory in the name of the supposedly more important priorities of welfare statism. Nevertheless, the quiet and reserved Armstrong himself would rightly live out his days as a revered national hero. And with Armstrong's death this weekend, I happily recall the profound reverence that I felt for the man and his achievement, especially as a child, where one forms their estimate of the world.

For me, I remember countless hours as a young boy in the 1970s transfixed by the dog-eared copies of Life Magazine chronicling the exploits of the Apollo astronauts. "We Reach the Moon" said the cover of one, as if the achievement of successfully piloting a controlled explosion to the moon and back was somehow a collective achievement—but therein lays the roots of the American birthright. As I sat among the pages, I felt with unconscious confidence that I too could be a Neil Armstrong, pioneering wherever I may wish to go. Who would say otherwise? Who would have the power to deny me? Why, upon this Earth—or the Moon—would I ever let them?

It was not lost upon me, even at that young age, that as Armstrong and other Americans walked upon the moon, no Soviet was able to match the feat, this despite it being the stern intention of their leaders. I thought to myself then that perhaps the Soviets were not able to successfully copy the American originals necessary to complete the task in the face of their oft-repeated habit of expropriating the work of others for their own ends. But how could they? Stealing, even successfully, can only take one so far, for even the most cunning blood-sucker remains dependent upon its victim for any success that it may enjoy. The simple fact was that the Soviets were not free and we were. In my young estimate, this distinction made all the difference.

Of course, I now know that the American space program was not the completely free enterprise that it ought to have been. Yet notice that while the government's space program languishes in comparison to its previous splendor, the world nonetheless enjoys a constellation of satellites that improve our lives on a daily basis. Men do not create under compulsion, and these satellites are plainly the product of free and uncoerced minds. So while putting international space stations in orbit or rovers on Mars may continue to be the province of governments for the near term, the real innovation that I expect we shall see will be the province of an unfettered enterprise—motivated by profit and the desire to take a first step towards an unborrowed vision.

I would be remiss not to point out that the freedom necessary for such future achievement is in question, this being the era of "you didn't build that." In that light, let us remember the life and achievement of Neil Armstrong. Tens of thousands built the Apollo rocket. Three men climbed into it. Two successfully piloted the craft to the surface of the moon. But only one could take that first brave step upon its surface.

So I say that this first step was a giant step for a man—and a giant leap for mankind. And I think that the day when new pioneers are able to take their first steps and are met with nothing less than pure admiration, we will see an even greater leap for mankind. I thank Neil Armstrong for helping to give me reason to believe that such a day is in our reach. Today, I look back upon the 43 years of my existence and can say that I feel as young as I did when as a boy I looked at the pages accounting Neil Armstrong's adventures with nothing less than marvel and awe.

Thank you, Mr. Armstrong, for the gift of such an inspirational life.

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