Salute to the man on the moon

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, know there is no hope for their recovery."

A portrait of Neil Armstrong is displayed during a public memorial service at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Ohio. Picture: REUTERS

A portrait of Neil Armstrong is displayed during a public memorial service at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Ohio. Picture: REUTERS

This was the speech prepared for President Richard Nixon in the event of calamity striking the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.

Thankfully it never had to be delivered.

Forgive me if I alarmed you momentarily, but as we digest the news of Armstrong's death, aged 82, I still think we underestimate the courage it took to undertake that mission and the bravery he and his colleagues showed whilst on it.

I had the great good fortune to share an audience with this extraordinary man in Sydney in the last year of his life, and feel doubly lucky that I did.

I will never forget his soft, husky voice describing what it was like to hurtle into space 10 times faster than a bullet.

Armstrong held his audience spellbound as he talked of orbiting the earth at 27,762 km/h, then increasing that velocity by 11,493.3 km/h precisely as the third stage of his rocket was ignited on course for the moon.

Point-one of 1 per cent too much and he was on a trajectory never to return to earth.

Let me share with you his dramatic recollection of that ignition occurring over the Indian Ocean, on the night side of earth.

"You feel the engine come to life," he whispered. "You settle back into your seat and feel the strong push of that rocket in your back.

"But in the dark you just can't see what's happening; there's no visual confirmation.

"The engine stops and you are floating. You see a scimitar of light ahead, a sliver of daylight marking the dawn and you are back into daylight ... the horizon is growing more and more. You can see Australia off to the right and Japan off to the left.

"All of a sudden you can see the entire circle, the whole planet earth, a gigantic blue medicine ball covered with white lacy clouds, and it's floating away from you into the inky black sky."

Armstrong paused heavily at this moment before adding: "This is the time when you say to yourself, 'Uh-oh, maybe I should have taken the CPA route'."

His line brought the house down, as it should considering his audience was assembled by the accounting body CPA Australia to celebrate its 125th anniversary.

Armstrong, the son of an Ohio accountant, showed himself to be not only the first man to have walked on the moon but also the funniest, despite calling himself a "white-socks, nerdy engineer"

He had many serious messages, but most were leavened with humour, even when he talked about landing the lunar module Eagle with less than one minute of fuel remaining.

He mimicked the voice he once heard in space from Houston: "Hello Apollo 11, this is Mission Control," before adding: "I don't know why they said that. Who else was it going to be?"

He voiced his displeasure that America's once mighty space program was in "chaos and disarray", following the cancellation of the United States' shuttle program.

But at all times he displayed one charming quality that reportedly helped him get the world's biggest gig in the first place - he was very down to earth.

I plan to follow the advice of his family and give Neil Armstrong a wink whenever I see the moon smiling down at me.

One headline said it all this week: "One giant loss for mankind."


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