Neil Armstrong is being celebrated as a great hero. He was the first man to walk on the Moon. Millions watched him descend from the space capsule and listened to him utter that memorable phrase, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Armstrong and Aldrin were part of a dedicated group who fulfilled John Kennedy’s 1961 promise to send an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. They opened a new frontier. They inspired millions.
I remember exactly where I was on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong stepped on the Moon. He did not inspire me to be an astronaut or an astronomer. What he did was more important; he helped me to end a long nightmare that had lasted 12 years.
The Cold War was not a series of direct confrontations between the Soviet Union and the United States. We were not attacked; we did not participate in direct combat with Soviet troops. The Cuban Missile crisis was as close as Americans came to an actual war with the Soviet Union. But, for an entire generation, it was something that was always there, it was part of our upbringing. Whether during drills in primary school during which we had to hide under our desks with sirens wailing or sitting in the school corridor trembling under our coats, we were aware of the possibility of a Soviet attack.
The worst day was October 4, 1957. 55 years later I can vividly remember sitting in a school auditorium watching a small television. I can remember who was sitting next to me; I remember which row I was in. On the tiny black and white screen was a picture of the first Soviet satellite circling the Earth. Sputnik was real, the Soviets were above us. Beginning that day, I began to have nightmares about Soviet troops entering the family apartment. I saw armed soldiers guarding the front door; I had to ask permission to leave to go outside. The first manned flight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, greatly embarrassed the U.S., reinforced Soviet superiority and deepened the nightmares.
When I watched Armstrong land on the Moon, it was as if the nightmare was no longer possible. We had landed on the Moon; the Soviets could no longer fly above us. Outer space was under American control. The tributes to Armstrong’s heroism and later discretion miss the political importance of what he had done. The rush to control outer space was part of the Cold War. When John Kennedy announced the space program, it was to re-assure the American people that we would not be beaten from above.
We all have different forms of traumas from our childhood, whether being bitten by a dog or attacked by bees. The nightmare that Armstrong eliminated for me was part of the psyche of an entire generation. Friends have confirmed this. And Russians have confirmed that they had similar experiences because of Armstrong and Aldrin. Our hero, Neil Armstrong, was part of their nightmares, their Gagarin.
Several years ago I visited the space museum outside St. Petersburg and saw the tributes to Gagarin. Thanks to Armstrong, I had no emotional reaction, just a certain sadness about the sleepless nights I had spent as part of a collective folly in the United States and Soviet Union that one can only hope will never be repeated. Neil Armstrong was a great hero to millions in the West for his space travel, but to me his greatest feat was to end those nightmares. That’s also what heroes do.