Like many other kids, I spent a fair amount of time lying on my back with my feet on the seat of a chair. That was the only way to pretend to be an astronaut. As I got older, I discovered that the Louisville Science Center had a mockup of the Gemini capsule that you could get in. Only one of the two seats was open, and many of the controls were behind plexiglass, but that didn’t matter. There were switches I could switch and no trip was complete without sitting in the capsule for far longer than any normal kid would.
Although the dream of being an astronaut slowly gave way to reality, I never lost my fascination with the spectacle of manned space flight. It seems fitting that, although I never set foot in an astronautics class, I attended the “Cradle of Astronauts.” Purdue University has contributed 22 astronauts to NASA (including two on the current shuttle mission), but the most famous has to be Neil Armstrong. You may have heard of him.
Purdue has buildings on campus named for Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, two alum who were tragically killed in the Apollo 1 fire. In 2007, a third astronaut-named building was dedicated. Armstrong Hall stands majestically at the corner of Northwestern and Stadium Avenues — the brick, glass, and steel shaped in such a way as to evoke the thought of flight. On a chilly October morning, I joined hundreds of others to stand in the mud and witness the dedication ceremony. I knew this would be a very memorable moment for me because of the list of speakers. Of course the University’s president and the Dean of the College of Engineering would speak, but also there would be remarks from the most recent man to walk on the moon: Purdue alumnus Gene Cernan. Oh yes, and NEIL EFFING ARMSTRONG!
Neil Armstrong, by all accounts, is just a guy who wants to get the job done and get back to being Neil. For years he has shunned the spotlight, rightly arguing that he was just one man on a team of many who succeeded in the goal of putting humans on the moon. He is reclusive, so it is very rare to get the opportunity to hear him speak, so there was never any doubt that I would go and watch. I don’t even remember what he said, I just remember that the entire time he was speaking I completely geeked out. “OMG! This is Neil Effing Armstrong!”
Later that day, the Purdue football team played host to Northwestern. A while back, a tradition what started that I don’t particularly care to partake in. At the end of the third quarter, a guest of some sort will wave a large flag out of the press box window and give some variation of “Hey Boilermaker fans, it’s time to shout!” and then Otis Day and the Knights will regale us with their version of the lively tune while the fans occasionally join in. Well on this particular day, who should be waving the flag but Neil Effing Armstrong! I had no choice but to shout. If Neil Effing Armstrong says to do something, you do it.
On the same note, the football team was losing 14-17 at the end of the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, the Boilermakers scored 21 unanswered points to win 35-17. Clearly the thought process was “hey, this guy walked on the damn moon. The least we can do is win a football game for him.” If only we could get Neil Effing Armstrong to show up to all of the football games.
So later today, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Unfortunately, some of us didn’t exist when it happened originally, so we can’t relieve it in our minds. Fortunately, everyone can relive it on the internet. The JFK Presidential Library is re-creating the entire Apollo 11 mission in real time at www.wechoosethemoon.com. You can be sure I’ll be following it closely, and re-living the dreams of my childhood.