Neil Armstrong, the first man to go to another world, passed away today at the age of 82. His death struck me in a way that I felt numb, cold in sunny southern California as though I might as well be on the Sea of Tranquility where he landed in 1969 with Buzz Aldrin. Armstrong's death is as profound to manned spaceflight as John Lennon's was to music. Few people make it as astronauts, and among those who do, fewer still have ventured farther than Earth's orbit.
Armstrong's death resonates with me on a deeper level than that of a science fiction writer. It's too easy and cheap an excuse to say that my sadness comes because I write about space. I certainly never felt this grieved over someone I've never met or even seen in person.
Gene Cernan was the last man to physically touch the Moon when he and Harrison Schmitt landed during the Apollo 17 flight in 1972. In those forty years since, the only sign of man's presence has been what we left behind on the lunar surface. Enviously, I would ask my parents what it was like to wake up in July of 1969 to Armstrong's landing.
That's why Neil Armstrong's death is such a big one to me: envy. In my life, I've never seen a live broadcast from the Moon. As things are, the prospect of a landing on Mars seems bleaker like a promise made and broken again and again. My generation has no great explorers, the job taken over by robots.
I'm not naive enough to believe that humans should return to space merely to fulfill an emotional indulgence. Even during the 1960s, when planting flags was what everyone saw, the goal wasn't just to amaze the world, but to say we were here before Comrades Khrushchev or Brezhnev. Still, I'm hungry, and I think my peers are. We're ready to sink our teeth, dig in, and carve our own piece of history.
In the meantime, I hope that Armstrong has landed on another Sea of Tranquility.