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Piercing Neil Armstrong’s privacy

Gary Caruso | Friday, April 16, 2010

Yesterday President Obama visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and addressed an independent panel’s recommendation to cancel the Ares I rocket. Noting that it would not be ready to serve its planned role for space station transport or to reach the moon by 2020 since underfunding crippled NASA’s plan, the panel concluded it unrealistic that Constellation’s first moon landing could occur until 2028 or later. The president prefers to develop a “flexible path” with a heavy lifting rocket. This option would develop technologies for trips beyond Earth’s orbit, and delay moon landings or on Mars until such technologies further evolve.

Obama’s announcement to cancel the over-budget and dilatory Constellation program has no breviary among the Apollo-era astronauts. A perceived snarkiness permeates through the debate and ignited between the first man to step onto the moon — Neil Armstrong — and his fellow Apollo 11 crewmember who followed him as the second man to walk on the moon’s surface, Buzz Aldrin.

Aldrin, in an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Many said the president’s decision was misguided, short-sighted and disappointing. Having the experience of walking on the moon’s surface on the Apollo 11 mission, I think he made the right call. If we follow the president’s plan, our next destination in space, Mars, will be within our reach.”

Without sounding vitriolic, Armstrong excoriated the president’s plan in a letter by saying the move is “devastating” to America’s space effort. Lacking a tone of an anathema, the letter ended by warning, “Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”

The Apollo 11 commander’s open letter was also signed by Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan — the last man to walk on the moon — and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, who marked the 40th anniversary of his famous near-disaster this week. Together, this famous trio also recently travelled to visit our troops overseas and in Afghanistan. That tour, called “Legends of Aerospace,” is actually where their letter took root … on a long plane ride together. The fact that Armstrong, one of the most private of persons but arguably the world’s most famous living astronaut, led other astronauts against NASA’s plans raised the level of this debate over America’s future in space. And indirectly, if not for a fellow Notre Dame alumnus, Mike Whalen (’74), who coordinated that tour, the nation — no, the world — may not have seen the peeling away of Armstrong’s obsessive privacy.

I am personally grateful to Whalen for the opportunity to meet Armstrong when they landed in New York for a public event at the Intrepid museum. I must offer a mea culpa for irritating Armstrong at the end of our visit. Within an hour, I brought him to a swelling of tears referring to his parents, to a chuckle about a Notre Dame curse on Apollo 13 and to anger when mentioning the possibility of filming his landing in the Mojave Desert.

It began when Armstrong completed breakfast and entered his hotel lobby. Unrecognized by those bustling about, the ease by which he carried himself controlled his demeanor. I asked about his parents who appeared on the “What’s My Line?” television show. I thought that Garry Moore quipped, “That would be something if your son was the first man to land on the moon.”

While not saying I was mendacious, Armstrong corrected, “As I recall, they appeared on ‘I’ve Got A Secret’ while I was on the moon — as the parents of the man who landed.” He choked up, and a tear welled in the corner of his eye as he continued, “I haven’t thought of that in some time.”

I sat behind Armstrong during the bus ride from the hotel to the museum. As we posed for a photograph, I said I needed to apologize to Apollo 13 Commander Lovell for jinxing his flight by walking under the platform during my visit while in Notre Dame’s Air Force ROTC. Without a word, Armstrong grinned as though to say, “Trust me, you were not responsible.”

As we neared the museum, I made a last request. My late humorous classmate and fellow Lyons Hall resident, Steve Pallucca, joked that the moon landing was a prevarication filmed in the Mojave Desert. Attempting a tongue-in-cheek question without trying to sound grandiloquent, I shamelessly interrupted Armstrong to ask if he could assure me that his landing was not filmed in the Mojave Desert. He replied with assertion and intransigence, “I can’t assure you of anything. But my footprints are on the moon. They have pictures of them. They know where they are, and someday someone will return and prove it.”

Later, speaking before the public, Armstrong’s first event since 1972, he paid tribute to the troops and avoided mentioning the moon. He passionately urged everyone to study government policies rather than accept talking points from others. He stressed that the troops’ sacrifices are beyond anything we can know unless we are among them in battle. It was a public Armstrong the enormity of his moon landing had once shelved. It was good that he and his letter emerged … all with roots through Notre Dame.


Gary Caruso is a Notre Dame graduate of the Class of 1973 and serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.