The moon will be full and bright this week, a glowing tribute to Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot there. Armstrong died Saturday at age 82. Perhaps the most profound way for families to celebrate his legacy is go out into the backyard with a pair of binoculars, look toward our cratered satellite, and try to imagine how much personal courage he and other US astronauts had to summon to get there. Armstrong was a remarkable individual — a talented test pilot who said of himself, “I am, and will ever be, a white-socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.” Peering into the sky, Americans need to reckon with Armstrong’s view that the nation’s retreat from human space exploration was “embarrassing.”
Yet in opting not to send more of its brightest minds in tiny craft toward the moon or targets even farther distant, the United States hasn’t given up on space exploration, which has just taken a different form. The science and wonder unleashed by Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” is still with us in the photos of Saturn by the Cassini spacecraft, the images of constellations from the Hubble telescope, and, most recently, in the amazing first days of the new Mars rover Curiosity. Unfortunately, the mathematicians who calculate the courses for these missions, the creative engineers who build the equipment, and the steel-nerved mission controllers are no more prominent now than they were in Armstrong’s day, but their work reflects the same can-do attitude and aptitude that Armstrong showed.
Correction: A caption in an early version of this editorial contained an incorrect date. Neil Armstrong left his footprint on the moon July 20, 1969