Tuesday, Aug 21, 2018
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S. Amjad Hussain

My dinner and field trip with a quiet hero: Neil Armstrong


Jeffrey Hall, left, director of Lowell Observatory, briefs Neil Armstrong, center, about the Discovery Channel Telescope. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the college of natural sciences and mathematics at the University of Toledo, is at right.

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America and the world have lost a genuine hero with the passing of Neil Armstrong. As the first man to step on the moon, he received instant fame. But he remained an unassuming man.

His astronaut colleagues basked in the glory of their accomplishments, but Mr. Armstrong shunned all publicity and preferred privacy. He refused to give interviews, sign autographs, or pose for photographs.

Because of his obsession with privacy, he was called a recluse. However, on rare occasions when he was in public, he was as a courtly gentleman.

I was fortunate to meet him briefly about a month before he passed away on Aug. 25.

In July, I traveled to Flagstaff, Ariz., as part of the University of Toledo delegation attending the inauguration of the Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory. UT is part of a consortium -- Boston University and the University of Maryland are the other members -- that has bought into use of the telescope.

Mr. Armstrong was the keynote speaker at the First Light Gala. When a newly commissioned telescope gets its first images from space, this is called first light.

Mr. Armstrong was seated at the table next to mine. During the evening, many people approached him, even though guests had been requested not to do so by the organizers.

He politely said hello and exchanged pleasantries. But his shyness was evident during these brief encounters.

During the introduction of the keynote speaker, the master of ceremonies asked audience members to raise their hands if they remembered where they were at the time of the Apollo 11 landing. Every hand went up. To the delight of the audience, Mr. Armstrong also raised his hand.

In his remarks, he was humble, self-effacing, and articulate. He said that after President John Kennedy declared that America would land a man on the moon before the 1960s ended, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration took up the challenge. NASA assembled the best and brightest people for the project.

Mr. Armstrong said his role, as a technician, was minimal. He was there to install mirrors on the surface of the moon.

He went on to say, tongue still in cheek, that scientists wanted to measure the exact distance between the Earth and the moon, because his travel expenses were based on the distance he had gone.

He repeated his plea that space exploration should be continued, because it is essential to the survival of our species. He concluded by showing a simulation of his landing and how he manually landed the spacecraft. He got a sustained standing ovation.

The next day, we went to see the new telescope, in Coconino National Forest near Happy Jack, about an hour's drive from Flagstaff. Soon Mr. Armstrong and his astronomer friends from Lowell joined us.

For about 30 minutes, Jeff Hall, the energetic and affable director of the observatory, told us about the telescope. Mr. Armstrong asked questions and engaged Mr. Hall in scientific discussion. He also met and exchanged pleasantries with others in the group.

After we toured the facility, Mr. Armstrong left for Flagstaff. About a month later, he died of complications of heart surgery.

Neil Armstrong cared deeply about his country and its space program. He did not hesitate to criticize the government for its recent cancellation of the space-shuttle and manned-exploration programs.

He was an uncommon hero, and a class act.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net

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