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In memoriam: Neil Armstrong, August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012

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Neil Armstrong passed away last week.

Those of us who, in spite of having come of age in the ’60s can remember some of it remember that once, we traveled between worlds and thought the investment worthwhile. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface, all of us stepped there … “One giant leap for mankind,” as he put it, at a time when “mankind” was understood to include both men and women.

Sure, there was carping about spending on space travel when there were problems to solve here on earth. It was based on a misunderstanding, though: As Isaac Asimov pointed out, we didn’t take billions of dollars’ worth of gold to the moon and bury it there. We spent it all right here on earth, employing scientists, engineers, mechanics, construction workers.

And astronauts.

If the only benefit we cared about was economic impact, the innovations funded by the space program made it one of the four best investments we ever made as a society (and by “as a society” I mean made through our collective will, exercised through our government), along with the transcontinental railroad, interstate highway system, and Internet.

Financial benefit isn’t the only kind of benefit worth tallying, though. At a time when U.S. society was shattering into pieces, visiting the moon was something astonishing the United States accomplished that no other country on earth could do. And yes, U.S. society was that bad. Those who describe our current political dialog as the worst they’ve ever seen don’t remember the Democratic Convention of 1968, when Chicago’s mayor screamed the k-word at Abraham Ribicoff while his police ran riot over the hippies occupying Grant Park.

It was that bad. Being “part of the system” was enough to brand a person as beyond the pale among a significant segment of the population, and they weren’t entirely wrong: The “system” was, at the time, corrupt, racist, sexist, and, for many, desperate to an extent far beyond the worst of 2012.

Our predecessors in the field of IT (it was called “data processing” back then) were, by the way, despised by most Americans, who weren’t entirely wrong in feeling that way, as computer errors led to ordinary citizens receiving enormous and incorrect bills for which collection agencies dunned them (and also, on more than one occasion, their receiving entirely accurate bills for $0 past due — pay immediately or we’ll turn you over to a collection agency).

Back then, a popular act of protest against “the system” was to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate the punch card enclosed with the bill, disobeying the vendor’s admonition to the contrary.

And yet, the ’60s were also a time when America’s best minds became scientists and engineers so they could work at NASA to invent something that could help us get to the moon. Now, those with equivalent talent become “quants” who work on Wall Street to invent financial derivatives so as to make themselves wealthy enough to buy the moon.

And it was a time when a favorite expression among those in the counterculture was, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” a sentiment I haven’t heard expressed in any form in the decades that followed, and sorely miss.

Also in the ’60s favor: Disco hadn’t been invented yet.

In 1969 we could go to the moon. In 2012, not only can’t we, we seem to have lost our appetite for it … for exploration for its own sake, for investing in knowledge gained for its own sake, and for investing when the returns are something our descendants will see, not ourselves.

Here’s how bad it is: Curiosity (the Mars rover, not the character trait) cost each and every American less than ten bucks, and yet I know people who complain about the expense.

Neil Armstrong was a proxy for all of us, for what we as Americans, and as human beings, could be, in the middle of a war in Vietnam that showed our ability to be the exact opposite.

On his death, his family released a statement that reads in part: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and 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.”

Do more. Give him a nod as well. Ask yourself whether, given a choice, you’d rather be remembered for the wealth you accumulated, or for being the first person to walk on the moon.

Plan accordingly.

Comments (25)

  • Well said, Bob!

  • Thank you, from a ’60s raised, baby boomer & rocket scientist.


  • Bob, do you know Ross Levin? He is also in the Twin Cities, and he is a financial planner. But I think you two are kindred souls. His tag line is “Spend your life wisely.” I would dearly love to listen to you two talk for an evening over a pitcher of beer.

  • Well said, indeed.

    Way off the topic, but your mention of both Chicago and “If you’re not part of the solution …” quote reminded me of an amusing phrase on saw a young man wearing on his t-shirt at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry last month: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

    I wonder how many people who saw it got the joke.

  • My husband and I toured the Kennedy Space Center and the Gemini 8 launch site on the Air Force base on Merritt Island just last week. RIP to the man who inspired so many of us to look to the sky.

  • Robots are the way to safety, we used them in the 60’s and we’re doing it now. It costs a lot to send people anywhere and more when they don’t arrive. But sooner than later we have to bite the bullet and make the leap.

    However, we need to be better at going into space… and I don’t like the recent private enterprise push. Some things should only be done by an efficient non-profit… water purification and distribution, sewage processing, alternative energy research and distribution, and space travel.

    We just have to be careful when the accountants look at costs and be sure they include the offsetting benefits (like Velcro, juice crystals, etc. which came from the moon run) so we don’t cheap out like we did with the shuttles.

    Neil and all astronauts both past and present deserve a heartfelt “Thanks for the risks you take to make us dream.”.

  • Make that the top 5: you left out public schools.

  • As a chemist with two teen-age sons, I can only sigh! The “teach to the test” and lowest possible denominator mentality of education today is depressing. Science is something that we can farm out or outsource–whichever is cheaper! Rational and logical thought processes are a rarity! I saw the Mercury I launch on a small B&W TV that our teacher brought from home–because she thought it was a world-changing event. Now, Curiousity is not even a curiosity! I pray for enlightenment for this country…and that Neil Armstrong’s life may be a spark to start that…Memory Eternal, Neil!

  • Thank you for saying this – well stated.

    As for humans or robots – I think it should be both. I once heard how much the economy was stimulated by the space program – seems like it was a return on investment of $7 for ever dollar spent – we should get more returns like that.

  • Inspirational. That was one of the best things I’ve read all month.

    “In 1969 we could go to the moon. In 2012, not only can’t we, we seem to have lost our appetite for it” aptly describes the current miasma the US find itself in.

    The uninspired cannot rally. The uninspired cannot achieve. All we have right now is political bickering over small “imitation greatness”.

    Thank you.

  • “…a time when America’s best minds became scientists and engineers so they could work at NASA…”

    I’m sure many of you have seen the quote from Jeff Hammerbacher, formerly of Facebook: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

  • I too watched in awe as Neil hopped off the last rung and transmitted that message. And perhaps because I came of age just as the ’60s turned into the ’70s I recall at least some of it. Particularly the days of rage, when the whole world was watching. It seems to me things haven’t really changed all that much.

    But as for “In 1969 we could go to the moon. In 2012, not only can’t we, we seem to have lost our appetite for it … for exploration for its own sake, for investing in knowledge gained for its own sake, and for investing when the returns are something our descendants will see, not ourselves.” Don’t forget that today there are private companies, perhaps more accurately groups of people with resources to burn, which are at least looking to extend our reach into our local solar system.

    In the end, Neil Armstrong and company changed the way people see the world by stretching the boundaries as nobody had done in more than 400 years, since the days of Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus. That change is, it appears to me at least, permanent. And for the better.

  • Great reminder of what “we the people” can do when we focus our talents on a worthwhile goal. Following your example and that of my local science museum, I’m going to go out and “inspire wonder” today.

    Thanks for rekindling the fire.

  • Thank you, Bob. That was a gem. Simply good beyond words.

  • As was said back in the 60’s, “right on!”

  • Neil was the truest and greatest of American heroes. They are few and far between.

    Too bad we can vote on how our taxes should be spent. I’d gladly fund NASA with my contributes to the Uncle Sam.

  • Hello Bob,
    Well thought, well spoken, well received. Of course that is normal….. Thanks for being so inspirational.

  • Oops.. I’m not your Dad, but I wish I were…..

    • Mark … If you were my Dad, I suspect you’d be quite a bit older than you actually are. Just guessing … but you can probably give it a rough calculation, given that I’ve revealed the decade in which I came of age.

      – Bob

  • Bob:
    An excellant column remembering a great American. As long as we have men like him… and authors like you to help us all remember, there is hope.

    Keep up the great work.

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