WASHINGTON — Former astronauts, friends and family of Neil Armstrong on Thursday celebrated the first man to walk on the moon as a “regular guy” who shunned fame but embraced big, bold ideas that inspired the country.
The two-hour memorial service at Washington National Cathedral was a reminder that the first generation of space explorers is passing on.
Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy renewed America’s vow to put a man on the moon within a decade. Now it’s been almost 40 years since the last manned moon mission, and more than a year since the last manned spaceflight.
The Cold War rivalry with the old Soviet Union motivated America to get to the moon first, and it did. Armstrong’s footprints remain, a symbol of man’s capacity to wonder, and to achieve.
But the Soviet Union is no more. Russia continues to have a manned presence in space, and a new rival, China, is hoping for one. And America isn’t the space leader it once was.
The space shuttles that used to orbit at speeds of 17,500 mph will be parked in museums. The engineers, scientists and others who worked on the shuttles have retired or moved on to other careers.
Indeed, Armstrong, who died last month at age 82, worried that the country was losing interest in space, a concern some former colleagues share.
A year ago, he told a congressional committee that the nation’s leading role in space, "once lost, is nearly impossible to regain."
“He represents the vision and curiosity that put us on the moon, and reminds us of what we can do if we choose to do it,” said George W.S. Abbey, a former director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who joined NASA in 1967. “That’s a startling contrast between where we were and where we are.”
Armstrong’s famous words upon setting foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 – “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” – seemed to promise that generations yet born would explore other planets and worlds beyond.
This from a future Navy pilot who dreamed of flying while growing up in Ohio but never thought he would, his admirers noted.
He “demonstrated it was possible to reach new worlds,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, and “paved the way for future American explorers to step foot on Mars or another planet.”
Of the dozen American men who walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972, eight are still living, and a few attended Thursday’s service: Buzz Aldrin, 82, who followed Armstrong’s historic first footsteps on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission; Michael Collins, 81, who piloted the command capsule on that mission; and Eugene Cernan, 78, part of Apollo 17, the final moon mission.
John Glenn, 91, the first American in Earth orbit and a former U.S. senator from Ohio, sat next to Aldrin, who’s perhaps better known these days as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”
They were icons who launched the dreams of schoolchildren everywhere and successors as well. Sally Ride, who died a month before Armstrong, blazed a path for women in science as America’s first woman in space.
NASA is still exploring space. Its unmanned rover, Curiosity, landed on Mars last month and started poking around for signs of life.
Private companies hope to fill the void the space agency left last year when it shut down the shuttle program by testing the prospects of commercial space travel. SpaceX, a California company, sent an unmanned craft to the International Space Station in May.
The question, said Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA chief who also attended Thursday’s memorial, isn’t whether humans will go beyond the worlds we know, it’s when.
“It’s all a question of time,” he said. “The power of the big idea will live.”