I was, as many of my friends know, named after Neil Armstrong,who died a few days ago. There were a lot of Neils in my year group at school, unsurprisingly. As well as being the most famous man on the planet (or off it,if you prefer) for some time, he was regarded as a hero not just for his bravery but for his modesty and dedication.
As a kid, I didn’t know that, of course, I just knew that I’d been named after the first man on the Moon and I’m pretty certain that my namesake played a part in making me who I am today. As long as I can remember being me, I was captivated by all things space from the real missions to explore Mars and the outer Solar System to the fictional exploits of Kirk, Flash Gordon and, of course, Tom Baker’s iconic Dr Who. My childhood bedroom was packed with books: glossy books with cutaway diagrams of Space Shuttles and satellites and all manner of science fiction novels. The first time that I ever met an author was seeing Hugh Walters at a public library, he was a local chap who’d written a series of stories for children about exploring space . I still have a signed copy of ‘Expedition Venus’.
I’m fairly sure that my interest in all things scientific has its roots in that early fascination with space exploration, too. I remember being almost hypnotised by Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ and I still dip into the book these days when I’m looking for an elegant, simple way to explain an element of physics for a course.
I often jest that I (and I imagine, all the other Neils of that year) am grateful to Neil Armstrong – for beating ‘Buzz’ Aldrin to the ladder. Actually, my debt of gratitude goes far deeper. I am truly and profoundly grateful for having that interest sparked in me at such an early age, for the wonder that I find daily in the universe, the capability and the opportunity to extend my learning and for the rational, logical mind, fostered by those interests, that enables me to make sense of the crazy people that inhabit this spinning rock.
A few years ago I was able to visit the Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space in Washington DC. It’s an almost sacred place for a space geek like me. I stood in the great hall there and took a long look at a lunar lander – let me tell you folks, Armstrong and his ilk were brave beyond the normal definition of the word. Those things were cobbled together when the height of technology was a Vauxhall Viva. They look like they were made from turkey foil, an old greenhouse frame and salvaged Mini Cooper suspension struts. If a chap in glasses told me that he was proposing to fire me a quarter of a million miles through an inimical vacuum on the basis of some calculations performed with a slide rule in one of those I’d be out of there so fast there would be an audible ‘pop’ as the air fell back into the gap I’d left. Yet Armstrong described himself as the archetypal “nerdy engineer” – think of that the next time you dismiss someone as a nerd – and let them sit him on top of a giant firework and shoot him at the Moon.
Neil Armstrong was a pilot of renowned skill, a man of learning, dedication and unbelievable courage; briefly the most famous human alive and symbol of all to which mankind might aspire. In spite of this he was a man of legendary humility. I couldn’t have wished for a finer namesake.
His family wanted his fans to honour his example of “service, accomplishment and modesty”, saying, “The next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
I’ll do just that. Rest in peace, Neil.