Fifty years and one day after President Kennedy issued the stirring summons quoted above, this nation and the world bid farewell to the first human being to step onto the surface of the moon. The Navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut, who died August 25, was remembered at a public service televised worldwide from Washington National Cathedral on Thursday, September 13, 2012.
Joining the Armstrong family beneath the Cathedral’s soaring arches were hundreds of the astronauts and analysts, scientists and steelworkers, engineers and executives, doctors and draftsmen, technicians and tailors, whose can-do spirit epitomized a post-war generation of Americans imbued with what writer Tom Wolfe termed “the right stuff.” Nothing was impossible, not even going to the moon.
Also gathered together, perhaps for the last time, were the pioneers of space who had became household names: including Apollo 11 crewmates Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins (St. Albans ’48); Mercury 7 astronaut and shuttle payload specialist John Glenn; 18 other astronauts; NASA administrators and executives; and Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr., Mission Control flight director. In the north transept sat row upon row of Navy midshipmen, not yet born when Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, wearing crisp white dress uniforms with the traditional black armband of mourning.
Scottish bagpiper Angus J. Sutherland, wearing a Clan Armstrong tartan, played Mist Covered Mountains as the family entered the nave. The service opened with the recorded Boston accents of President Kennedy, speaking across the divide of time.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things—not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…
Tributes to an American Hero
Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan spoke of Armstrong as “a sincerely humble man of impeccable integrity, who reluctantly accepted his role of the first human to walk on another world. And when he did,” he added, “he became a testament to all Americans of what can be achieved through vision and dedication.” As Cernan put it, “Neil considered that he was just the tip of the arrow, always giving credit to some 400,000 equally committed and dedicated Americans who just ‘didn’t know it couldn’t be done.’”
On the eve of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA had predicted that “lunar landing—that first step toward the stars—will represent more than a triumph of technology over time and distance. It will be a single moving experience to be shared in a brief bond of worldwide brotherhood. Then it is not important who is standing there, what is important is that man is standing there.”
“No one,” said Cernan, “no one—but no one—could have accepted the responsibility of his remarkable accomplishment with more dignity and grace than Neil Armstrong. He embodied all that is good and great about America.”
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, recalled in her homily Armstrong’s description of the defining moment when he looked out his spacecraft window. “It suddenly struck me,” he said at the 1970 Miami University commencement, “that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
Former Secretary of the Treasury John P. Snow, who knew Armstrong through his post-NASA roles on corporate boards and as a golf partner, remembered a lighter side of his friend. Waiting for him to putt, “he’d survey the line to the hole. He’d measure the dew on the green,” said Snow. “He couldn’t help but be the engineer.”
Michael Collins, retired Air Force Major General and command module pilot of Apollo 11, read the intercessory prayers, thanking God for his friend and colleague “who with courage and humility first set foot upon the moon. Following his example,” Collins prayed, “save us from arrogance, lest we forget that our achievements are grounded in you.”
Fly Me to the Moon
A highlight of the service came when Grammy-winning Canadian jazz musician Diana Krall, wearing a gold moon-shaped necklace and accompanying herself at a grand piano in the great choir, crooned wistfully:
Fly me to the moon let me swing among those stars let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.
Frank Sinatra’s 1964 hit had been played by astronaut Gene Cernan aboard Apollo 10 and by astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 landing.
Another memorable vignette was a glimpse of former Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton, a member of the Cathedral Chapter, seated behind the lectern mouthing the words to the Navy hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save, along with the Navy Band Sea Chanters.
The service concluded with the singing of America the Beautiful in an arrangement by Canon Michael McCarthy, director of music. The soaring unison melody, sung first by the Cathedral Choristers, culminated with the Metropolitan Opera Brass and organ joining the congregation for the last verse.
Finally, NASA Administrator and former astronaut Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr., presented Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol, with the American flag that was flown at half-staff over Mission Control at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston on the day her husband died.
After the bishop’s benediction, beseeching God to “nerve [those gathered] with the courage of the astronauts,” the assemblage poured out onto the sun-splashed Walker Court.
Fragment of Creation from beyond the Earth
Presiding over these proceedings from its perch in the south clerestory wall high above the main floor was the Cathedral’s famed Space Window. On this day, glorious morning sunlight poured through its deep midnight hues, redolent with the eternal silence of space.
Many of those attending Armstrong’s memorial, including Aldrin and Collins, had also been at the Cathedral on July 21, 1974, for the dedication of the Cathedral’s Space (Scientists and Technicians) Window. Apollo 11 had returned to Earth with 50 pounds of rocks gathered on the lunar surface, samples of which were made available for scientific research, education, and public display.
To mark the fifth anniversary of the first lunar landing, the crew of Apollo 11 presented to the Cathedral a sliver of moon rock about the size of a Kennedy half dollar, weighing only 7.18 grams (approx. .25 oz.). “This fragment of creation from beyond the Earth [is] to be imbedded in the fabric of this house of prayer for all people,” said Armstrong, in presenting the gift authorized by President Richard Nixon.
We Came in Peace for All Mankind
Five years earlier, in words nationally broadcast during the first moon landing, Dean Sayre had said that “the discoveries we are now making in the universe only enhance our sense of God’s creation. … That we can now retrace within our lives, and within our knowledge, the finger of God who made it all, only enhances the majesty of the Almighty.” Fully in agreement was the scientist Wernher von Braun, who was also quoted by the press at that time. “In words that might have been spoken by Dean Sayre,” as it was reported, “von Braun has said, ‘Through science man tries to harness the forces of nature around him. Through religion he tried to harness the forces of sinful nature within him.’ [He] concludes that man’s increasing knowledge of the universe only confirms our belief in the certainty of its creator.”
The father of modern space flight, von Braun was present in the Cathedral with Dean Sayre for the Space Window’s dedication in 1974—and eulogized there after his death in 1977. Some three decades earlier, in 1945, he and 500 fellow scientists had surrendered to a confused and startled American Amy private. “We knew that we had created a new means of warfare,” he said years later. “Only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible,” he explained, could the “assurance [of peace] to the world be best secured.”
Congress would later create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, stating “that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” Transported from defeated Germany to America, von Braun and his rocket team worked with the U.S. Army, then NASA, to build the Jupiter missile, then the Redstone rocket that launched the first Mercury capsules, and later the powerful Saturn v rockets that hurtled the Apollo missions toward the moon.
Then on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong declared calmly from the surface of the moon, “Houston: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed!” Affixed to the ladders on the descent stage of the Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle, which remains on the moon, is a plaque reading, “We came in peace for all Mankind.”
Shipmate, Stand Relieved
From the Sea of Tranquility on the moon to the depths of Earth’s oceans, Neil Armstrong was a Navy man to the end, asking to be buried at sea. On board the Navy missile cruiser Philippine Sea, a Navy signalman flashed the traditional Navy farewell: “Fair winds and following seas. Shipmate, you stand relieved; we have the watch.”
And from Gene Cernan, the last man to walk the lunar surface, came a last salute to the first man to walk on the moon: “As you soar through the heavens beyond where even eagles dare not go, you can now—finally—‘put out your hand and touch the face of God.’”