Some 40+ years ago, American knowhow and emerging technology sent an ordinary guy from Ohio, Neil Armstrong, to walk on the Moon. It was an act of boots on the ground audacity that has since never been equaled. “One small step for a man: one giant leap for mankind” was the culmination of the Big Idea, that magical mystical moment when people believe, tuck their egos away and apply all their energy, ambition and ability to reach for the stars. When people do that, even the sky isn’t the limit. Neil Armstrong was (and still is) the symbol of that selflessness. Even as America changed its royal family from the Kennedys to the Kardashians Armstrong remained the reluctant hero – America’s last Gary Cooper. He realized, better than anyone else on this planet, that, in fact, walking on the moon was not his accomplishment.
Neil Armstrong’s boot on the Moon changed history, but not simply because he put it there. America’s Space Program and Moon landings produced much more than just an indelible footprint on an extraterrestrial body. The innovation and technology alone changed our society. Without Armstrong’s size 12s, our world would look very different from what we see around us today. Let me demonstrate.
One of the first problems NASA encountered when it began flinging men out of our atmosphere is that pens (ordinary ballpoint pens) would not write in the weightlessness of space. It was a small thing but critical to humanity’s conquest of the heavens. Immediately, NASA set about solving the problem. They hired a team of engineers, equipped labs and technical facilities, spent literally millions of dollars on the study of hydraulics in a vacuum and came up with the Zero Gravity Pen. The Soviets, who had discovered the same problem some months earlier, thought about it thoroughly and gave their cosmonauts pencils.
Make no mistake: this story is absolute fiction (the Fisher Space Pen was developed independently in 1965.) However, for decades, it has roamed our planet, masquerading as fact. The important thing to note, is that even as most people believe this tale to be true, they are missing the significance of its allegorical message.
The pen-and-pencil myth is meant to show the narrow-minded American approach to problem solving. Unable to think outside the box, they invariably ignore the simple solution and just throw money around promiscuously in a virtual orgy of waste. This may be true to the casual observer, but look a little closer. Yes, the pencil is an ingenious solution in the short term, but in the long term, it’s a dead end. It doesn’t further the scope of innovation or engineering or scientific discovery or anything. In actual fact, it stops the clock.
Fact or fiction, the residual value of the Zero Gravity Pen is enormous. The American race for the moon provided the world with one of the greatest scientific leaps forward in human history. They beat the Soviets by some years, and the seeds NASA planted doing it, grew into the technological wonders of our age – everything from miniaturization to massive personal computing power. Almost at the exact moment the American-developed Internet was beginning to stride across the world like a new Colossus, the Soviet Union was imploding under the weight of its own stagnation. Metaphorically, the Soviets were still using pencils.
So what does this have to do with the death of an American hero? Not much, except that, at the very epicentre of NASA’s scientific and technological revolution, Neil Armstrong understood both the significance and the insignificance of his contribution. He was the public face of the Space Race. It was a man on the moon that galvanized the energies of a nation. Yet, for every footprint Armstrong left on the lunar surface, there had been literally thousands of nameless engineers and technicians whose job it was to put them there. They were the ones who changed our world from pencils to Touch Screen Smartphones.
Neil Armstrong is an American hero — a man bold enough to go where no man had gone before. But he also understood how he got there, was humbled by it, and, for the rest of his life, acted accordingly.