Update: Several hours after this post was first published, the White House issued a directive that will have all American flags lowered to half staff in honor of Neil Armstrong.
Like most Americans, I found the news this weekend of the passing of Neil Armstrong saddening. An immensely private man, Armstrong’s accomplishments are the stuff of jaw-dropping legends. From his time as a test-pilot, saving the Gemini 8 mission from near disaster, to doing what he will always be remembered for – being the first person to set foot on the Moon.
If Armstrong had been an ancient Greek, I have little doubt Homer would have written poems about his accomplishments. Instead, cameras and reporters recorded his accomplishments and have preserved them for generations to come. In almost every obituary that has been written about him, the words most often used to describe him have been “humble,” “private,” “solid” and “gentle.” Having had the fortune of meeting him three times, I can attest to the accuracy of those descriptions. For a guy whose ego could be as deservedly monstrous as his accomplishments, he showed none of that flair or style, and those qualities only added to his iconic status.
I guess it’s for those reasons I found my drive into work this morning so disappointing. As I drove into Washington, I noticed that none of the U.S. flags were at half-staff. The flags surrounding the Washington Monument, on federal and commercial buildings, and even the White House, were at full-mast. I just shook my head in sadness at that sight.
I realize, as a longtime space enthusiast, I am more than unbiased in my reverence for Neil Armstrong and the legendary astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era. Call it hero-worship if you will, but when you voluntarily decide to climb into what is essentially an experimental rocket, (built by the lowest bidder, as the astronauts of that era often stated) and blast off into God knows what, I think there is a more-than-special status for you in our society. These are the pioneers of the modern era who risked it all to explore, learn and boldly do what others have only dreamt about.
Somehow that does not merit the lowering of our flag to half-staff for at least a day to honor a man who became the ultimate explorer of his era. Recently, our flag was lowered for several days to honor the victims lost in the senseless shootings in Aurora, CO and the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI, as well as to honor the loss of a Park Service Ranger who died in the line of duty. It is also not unusual to see the American flag and state and local flags lowered to half-staff to honor police, fire and emergency personnel as well as American military service personnel lost in the line of duty. All of those are worthy occasions to display such a half-staff honor, but somehow we forgot that for Neil Armstrong. How is that possible?
Here’s a guy who along with his Apollo 11 partner Buzz Aldrin took our flag and planted it on the surface of the Moon, thereby fulfilling the vision of the President who put forward the world’s most ambitious mission. And now we’ve forgotten him by ignoring this very simple honor on his behalf.
I can easily argue the merits of why Neil Armstrong should lie in repose in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and be afforded a full state funeral. As of this writing, whatever funeral arrangements are being made for him have been kept private – much like the man himself. Regardless of what they may be, as Americans, we owe him and the other pioneers like him a sign of our respect, and it has not been afforded.
In many ways, it probably seems like summoning ancient history to reflect on the Apollo era. For all of its success and glory, it was also a time of tremendous national strife and bitterness over civil rights, the Vietnam War and more. The Apollo 11 mission (as well as the Apollo 8 mission) was one of those brief times when the people of the world literally stopped and looked in awe at what we could do and felt good about themselves.
As a native son of Ohio – the cradle of aviation – Armstrong represented us on a journey that started with a single step and took us as a species (as well as a nation) leaping forward in hope, dreams and possibilities. He humbly carried our flag where he was asked to go, so it is time for Americans to ask, “Why can’t it be lowered for at least a day in his honor?”
Whether it be the distractions of the unfolding political conventions, a looming hurricane or late summer laziness, our nation’s leaders have let us down by not giving the simplest of orders to bring our flag to half-staff in his honor. I find that disheartening.
Armstrong was the perfect selection to be the first of us in this country (and for that matter the world) to set foot someplace other than our home planet. Somehow I feel we’ve let his example down by forgetting the honor he so richly deserves.