You could search for light years and not find another man like Neil Armstrong

14th September 2012 at 01:00
The self-proclaimed `nerdy engineer' was the coolest astronaut on (and off) earth

"I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer." Do you know who said that? No, it wasn't me. Any engineering I have done has been strictly amateur. It was another teacher, albeit one who worked in higher education, though his death last month made the headlines because of an earlier career that took him to the moon.

I was intensely moved by Neil Armstrong's passing, quite taken aback by the depth of my feelings. Unlike many of my peers, I did not see the landings live on TV. I was nine years old, on holiday in a caravan in Aviemore. Portable televisions hadn't been invented then. I do remember listening to a report on the radio, though that may have been a recording.

On the Saturday following the sad news, a good number of my science friends Facebooked about having been allowed to stay up by their parents - usually it was dad who was mentioned. The fact that many of those dads, including my own, have gone the way of Neil Armstrong added to the feeling of loss.

But what was lost? I didn't know Neil Armstrong personally. You could argue that he was only the figurehead of a marvellous team of visionary, inventive scientists and engineers, without whom he'd never have got anywhere near floating in a tin can high above the world. But what a figurehead he was - brave but quiet and thoughtful.

So was I sad because the first small step didn't lead to the further steps I dreamed of at the time? Where's the lunar colony? Real people, not robots on Mars? Warp drive and the breaching of the final frontier? It wasn't that. I'm wise enough to appreciate that science and engineering have blossomed in ways that we could never have imagined in those days, though there has never been quite the same big adventure to grip the world.

I don't think, in the end, it was sadness that moved me. It became clear that in those days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were times when young people looked to the moon and knew there were people up there. It was a beacon, drawing them to science at a time when their elders only too clearly remembered how technology was on the point of being used to lay waste to the planet. I had a picture in my head - call it romanticised or sentimental if you like - of these children lowering their heads, heading back indoors to watch TV or go to bed, the desire to work in science beginning to grow inside them.

Neil Armstrong, you were, and always will be, much more than a white- socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.

Gregor Steele knew the names of all the lunar and command modules.

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