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Neil Armstrong’s Legacy for Astronomers

Not many people can say they’ve met the first man on the moon.  But mingle with astronomers gathered in Beijing for a conference and you’ll come across one or two—even at breakfast—who can reflect personally about Neil Armstrong.

Australian Ronald Ekers, for one, worked on the radio telescope that picked up Armstrong’s heartbeat and other signals during the historic Apollo mission of 1969.  Several decades later, he expected technical chatter when he found himself seated next to Armstrong at a dinner.

Instead the celebrated astronaut brought up Captain James Cook’s 18th-century sailing expeditions, suggesting that going to the moon was “maybe a little dangerous” in comparison.  “I found him an incredible guy,” says Ekers, now a fellow at Australia’s science agency CSIRO.  “He was so humble.”

Neil Armstrong in 1969. The astronaut died on August 25, 2012, at age 82.

Modesty.  Bravery.  Big dreams.  Other worlds.  Armstrong raises these themes among the space scientists at the triennial International Astronomical Union meeting.  Not all of them do work directly impacted by the moon landing.  Many dreamed of being astronauts, yes, but found themselves in the role of looking at space—a more feasible way of reaching the stars.

At 33, extragalactic astrophysicist Raffaele D’Abrusco says he envies his parents for having witnessed Armstrong’s lunar steps.  “Their generation can be proud of something for humankind.  My generation doesn’t have that so much; we don’t seem to have leaders pursuing big dreams.”

Russian astronomer Andrei Dambis was on the competing side of the Cold War space race and regards Armstrong as a hero nonetheless.  “Not many people know how dangerous it is to go into space,” says the Milky Way expert, recalling a classmate who lost her cosmonaut father when a 1970s Soviet spacecraft depressurized.

In a field devoted to looking upward and outward, Armstrong’s legacy is as much about keeping one’s feet on the ground.  IAU president and former Hubble director Robert Williams reflects readily about what he learned from the man he met about a year ago.

“He managed to focus on you rather than talk about himself,” says Williams.  “He led by quiet example and maintained modesty.  I attach great importance to that.”

At the end of her talk on NASA’s exoplanet search, Kepler Mission Scientist Natalie Batalha fast-forwarded to a slide showing U.S. astronaut Sally Ride, who died last month, and Armstrong.  Bringing a philosophical close to a lecture populated with periodic tables of planets and photometry graphs, Batalha offered this thought.  “There will come a day when no one’s left who has stepped on another world.”

Luna Shyr, an editor at National Geographic magazine, owes her name to Neil Armstrong.  She was born on the astronaut’s birthday.  


  1. kuldip patil
    October 31, 2012, 11:32 pm

    Neil armstrong’s very bravery person in this world… not only neil but her whole team …

    October 6, 2012, 12:11 pm

    When neil stepped on the moon for the first time ,he uttered these now famous words :”That’s one step for a man ;one gaint leap for mankind.”

  3. George Harris
    Fredrick, MD.
    October 3, 2012, 5:33 pm

    Many of us have seen the video of Neil Armstrong on the moon. It’s easy to sit back and watch that great legacy on tv, but to actually do it, to experience the moon, to put life on hold, it’s a great thing.

  4. awesome one
    September 26, 2012, 10:43 am

    even though Armstrong died, doesn’t mean his legacy has to die!

  5. adoy'i idoko
    September 3, 2012, 1:49 am

    everytime we look at the moon,we should know that we can do something better,just get the motivation that Armstrong had.

  6. Lourdes Castro
    September 1, 2012, 11:36 pm

    I’m proud of you Neil Armstrong. I hope there will be someone like you in our generation today.

  7. Richard Combes
    New York
    August 31, 2012, 8:18 am

    A very human article. It is so interesting to hear the views of the experts on the intelligence, bravery, and humility of Neil Armstrong. He is without doubt a great man and major contributor in the exploration of the universe.

  8. Genesio M. Silva
    August 30, 2012, 8:50 pm

    Minhas condolências.

  9. Genesio M. Silva
    August 30, 2012, 8:45 pm

    Nossa homenagem a este bravo homem que teve a coragem desta grande aventura espaço a dentro como um desbravador, a fim deste feito tão valioso para as grandes possibilidades humanas.
    Nossas condolências a seus familiares e amigos.