This article was first published in Spaceflight magazine (Vol 41, no. 7, July 1999) and is put here after kind permission of the British Interplanetary Society
By Thanassis Vembos
In May 1998, I had the chance to meet Neil Alden Armstrong, the man who first walked on the surface of the Moon, during the historical mission of Apollo 11. Armstrong happened to be in Greece, in order to give an inaugurating speech during the opening ceremony of the international informatics exhibition "Infoworld". This was a unique opportunity to meet and converse with a true "living legend" of the Space Age. Armstrong declined to give a personal interview as this has been his standard practice the last twenty five years. So I report the questions and answers during the press conference that was held.
A huge crowd was gathered inside the press conference room and after the questions, dozens of people reached him to grip his hand or ask for a signature on Armstrong's pictures. But the First Man on the Moon did not have enough time to satisfy all of them. Soon after, he was taken away by his personal security guards while a flock of people were actually running after him until his car sped away from the exhibition ground!
During his quite interesting inaugurating speech, Armstrong refered to the relation between informatics and space flight. "The development of the rocket itself", asserted Armstrong, "would not have permitted us to send objects or even people into space, as long as we cared about getting them back. By some strange twist of fate, the computer just happened to appear at the same time as the rocket. If the rocket made space travel possible, it was the computer that made it practical."
I quote the most interesting questions, put forth by me and fellow aerospace journalists.
- Why there is so much less interest and political will about human space exploration even though today, 30 years after Apollo, there is much more wealth and technology available?
* First of all, there is still a substantial manned flight programme going on, as you know. We have people flying in space every day and I think that will continue but probably not in an increasing rate until there is some truly important reason to do so because it is very expensive. Secondly, rockets are very inefficient devices. Unfortunately they are the only mechanism we have at the present time to go to space. But they are not very good.
- It is a fact that the Cold War and the confrontation between USA and USSR set the rules of the game for the space programme. Today the rules are different. Supposing that today you had the chance to repeat your mission, would you consider this as a good opportunity to stick the UN flag on the Moon instead of the American flag?
* The space programme of my day was a product of the Cold War -there is no question about that. If we were to go again under the same circumstances but with a different world arrangement of powers, then we might have different national emblems. As a matter of fact, my crew proposed that we could fly a UN flag but the Congress -the provider of the money for the programme- would not go along with this. I don't want to overestimate that. Actually, there were thousands of proposals from individuals about which flag we should take with us. Fortunately I did not have to be the one that made that decision!
- The Moon landings consisted a real technological revolution for the 20th century. Which technological breakthrough do you believe will take place in the 21st century?
* I noted in my speech how dangerous it is to make predictions. So I will make this prediction with no assurance however that it will be true. Definitely, there have been remarkable advances in the past 15 years in genetic engineering. So, certainly, the promise exists that in the next century there will be substantial advances in the field, something that will benefit the human species. A second possibility is that we will make enormous improvements in the understanding of the human brain and its consequences, concerning the improvement of the human standard of ethics.
- Today we lack the enthusiasm of the Apollo days. Is the space exploration over for good?
* On the contrary, I believe that the space exploration is just beginning! There is a far more to learn than we have already learn. However, getting there will not be easy. It will take some essential improvements in technology. There is no reason to suspect that technology will not continue to advance in the next century. There will many more opportunities than we now have, that we can envision. In the near term, we will explore own own solar system. At first with unmanned spacecraft, which we now doing, and to some extent with manned crafts. Going beyond our solar system will require technologies that we cannot yet envisage but may will exist.
- What were the toughest moments in your carreer?
* The darkest moments have been challenges of the flight. Problems in both aircraft and spacecraft that required the very best of my abilities and those of my associates and perhaps a little help from Divine Providence. In any case those moments were followed by periods of brightness when you realize that you are able to conquer the problems.
In the end of the press conference, whan Armstrong had answered the final question, there was a request from a small boy, about 8 years of age, that insisted to ask the astronaut another question. Of course, he was given the permission to do it.
"Mr Armstrong", said the boy, "how it is on the Moon, where there is no gravity? How does it feel to be there?"
The astronaut gave a wide smile and said.
"I have found that you can answer to adults almost in any way and get away with it. But when you answer to a question of a gentleman of the age of this one I have to be very precise to my answers!"
A wave of laughter broke in the press conference room, and Armstrong continued, telling the boy:
"My little friend, the answer is simple; You would love it!"