Editorial: A great hero shined during turbulent times

Published 10:06 am Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Many Albert Lea Tribune readers remember where they were on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He spoke words that have become commonly known: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The words were a reference to a simple step from a ladder to the surface of the moon also being the fulfillment of one of the oldest fantasies of the human race.

But what the young people of today perhaps don’t know was what the times were like in 1969. The United States was fighting the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the space race was about showing which country had the technological superiority.

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It was democracy versus communism. Wars to spread or to contain the spread of the two ideologies had left hundreds of thousands dead. Nuclear armaments loomed ever more threatening, with children practicing diving under their desks and families investing in bomb shelters. Meanwhile, American politics had been torn apart by civil rights struggles, peace protests, the rise of the counterculture and the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy and of black leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Amid all this turmoil, America fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge in 1961 to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Armstrong’s step symbolized beating the Soviets and showed how America can do great things even when it is divided over petty-by-comparison matters. And his step was the culmination of spectacular work by thousands of people in the U.S. space program. Some, such as astronaut Gus Grissom, died in the effort. They, too, deserve adulation.

Still, it was fitting that it was Armstrong who became the first man on the moon, for he was a humble test pilot from Ohio who never cultivated his celebrity status after the moon landed.

Armstrong died Saturday at the age of 82. America will miss a great hero.