Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

A Viennese or German correspondent asked in a heavy accent of Armstrong, “Have you had any der-reams?” Dreams. Armstrong smiled. He couldn’t say he did. The smile was as quick to protect him as the quick tail flick of a long-suffering cow standing among horseflies in a summer meadow heat, yes, smile-and-flick went Armstrong, “I guess after twenty hours in a simulator, I guess I sometimes have dreams of computers.” (And Aquarius took careful notes on this, for his theory of the dream was not unrelated to the simulations of trajectory within the ephemerides.)

As the questions went on, the game was turning. The German might have asked his question about dreams with the happy anticipation that any material provided would offer him a feast – the symbols of the dreams were pot roast after all and gravied potatoes to the intellectual maw of a nice German head, but the answer, frustrating as all the answers had been, now succeeded in working up a counterpressure. Slowly, unmistakably, the intellectuals and writers on the dark side of the glass were becoming a little weary of the astronauts. Collins’ implacable cheerful cool, Aldrin’s doughty monk’s cloth of squaredom, Armstrong’s near-facetious smile began to pique their respect. The questions began to have a new tone, an edge, the subtlest string-quivering suggestion that intellectual contempt was finally a weapon not altogether to be ignored. Were these astronauts after all not much more than brain-programed dolts? And the contempt was a true pressure. For give an athlete brains, give an aviator brains, give an engineer a small concealed existence as presumptive poet, and whatever is not finished in the work of their ego, whatever is soft in their vanity, will then be exercised by the contempt of an intellectual. The writers were pushing Armstrong now.

Why, why ultimately, they were asking, is it so important to go to the moon? Man to man, they were asking, brain to brain, their leverage derived from the additional position of asking as writer to small-town boy: why is it important?

Armstrong tried to be general. He made a speech in fair computerese about the nation’s resources, and the fact that NASA’s efforts were now tapped into this root. Well, then, asked a dry voice, are we going to the moon only for economic reasons, only to get out of an expensive hole? No, said Armstrong.

Do you see any philosophical reason why we might be going? the voice went on, as if to imply: you are aware there is philosophy to existence as well?

Armstrong had now been maneuvered to the point where there was no alternative to offer but a credo, or claim that he was spiritually neuter. That would have violated too much in him. Yes, he blurted now, as if, damn them and damn their skills, they had wanted everything else of him this day, they had had everything else of him, including his full cooperation, now damn them good, they could have his philosophy too if they could comprehend it. “I think we’re going,” he said, and paused, static burning in the yaws of his pause, “I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges.” He looked a little defiant, as if probably they might not know, some critical number of them might never know what he was talking about, “It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul.” The last three words came out as if they seared his throat by their extortion. How privacy had been invaded this day. “Yes,” he nodded, as if noting what he had had to give up to writers, “we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”

— Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon