“From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.” – Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13
I can’t remember all the heroes I admired as a boy. Five of the more memorable were:
- Elvis Presley
- Evil Knievel
- Johnny Bench
- Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong was a hero that bridged generations. I wasn’t born until a year after the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, but I remember learning about the astronaut who first walked on the moon when I was still a little boy. Even as the space race passed its zenith, it seemed every boy my age still wanted to be an astronaut. It wasn’t until we saw Star Wars that we considered the possibility that there could be a cooler spaceman than Neil Armstrong. His passing last week has me thinking about a few things.
First, if you’ve ever wondered what is meant by the phrase “American exceptionalism”, Neil Armstrong and the teams at NASA that won the space race are the perfect example. The space race was truly a testament to thinking big and working hard, the essence of American exceptionalism. When President Kennedy said we would put a man on the moon, he threw down the gauntlet for America’s best and brightest to pick up and work their magic. And work they did. Many people poured their best years, their hardest work, and some even their very lives into the quest to put a man on the moon. When Neil Amstrong took his “giant leap for mankind,” it was the quintessence of American exceptionalism. “We just decided to go.” Indeed.
Second, who are our heroes today? Lance Armstrong? Mark Zuckerberg? Michael Phelps? Oscar Pistorius comes to mind (the Olympian called “Blade Runner” because he runs on prosthetic legs shaped like curved blades). Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell would be on my list as well (Check out his book Lone Survivor, the heart-pounding story of the unbelievable sacrifice of a few of America’s elite fighting forces). They’re out there. I do think that our national character has slipped in the last generation or so, but there are still great people doing great things. Ironically, with the explosion of media in the last 30 years, it seems less likely that you’ll find a hero on a television or movie screen.
Finally, as we say goodbye to one hero, I wonder, who will be the new heroes?