Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Where have all our heroes gone? Astronaut Neil Armstrong and his generation were the “Right Stuff”

The following essay appeared in The Morning Call on-line September 4, 2012 and in-print on September 5, 2012.  I hope you enjoy reading my essay. It just seems to me that our country, indeed our world, could use a few more real heroes and true leaders like Astronaut Neil Armstrong.

(Neil A. Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, is shown at the lunar module on the moon in July 1969.
Considered an American hero, Armstrong died Aug. 25 at age 82. (NASA, AFP/Getty Images / September 4, 2012)

I could not help but see the irony in the fact that a true American hero, Neil Armstrong, died the same week that Lance Armstrong was forced to concede his fame due to allegations of cheating. I say “allegations” because in today’s world, until proven guilty by a court, our fake heroes rarely, if ever, hold themselves accountable for their words and actions.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was, of course, a true hero, having been the first human to step on the moon.  Prior to becoming an astronaut he was a United States Naval Officer who served in the Korean War. He flew 78 missions over Korea and was shot down once, remarkably surviving after he was forced to eject from his crippled jet. From 1955-1962 he served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base where he pushed the limits of jet propulsion technology with another American hero, Chuck Yeager.

In 1962 Neil Armstrong officially became a NASA astronaut, joining the Gemini and later, Apollo programs. Risk and challenges were all around him throughout his career.  In 1967, only two years prior to the lunar landing, three Apollo 1 astronauts lost their lives in a fire during a launch pad test.  Along with a vast collaborative team of scientists, engineers, astronauts and staff, the Apollo program participants continued their quest of putting a man on the moon nonetheless.   Their tireless efforts and selfless sacrifice under the visionary leadership of men like Armstrong led to the famous Apollo 11 landing on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Heroes of days gone by held themselves to a high standard.  Like so many of his generation, Neil Armstrong was all about service to country, devotion to family, and dedication to his craft.  And, after achieving what was undoubtedly the greatest human triumph of his time, he remained humble, decent, and generous. Though he received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he largely turned down opportunities to make money on his achievements but instead chose to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

And while real heroes who possessed high ethical standards and self-reliance, like Neil Armstrong, were focused on service and the pursuit of dreams that benefitted humankind, the fake heroes of today seem “sold-out” on fame, fortune, and their own legacy - at any cost - even cheating.  Something is out of balance.   We seem to lack a collective personal integrity.  Long gone are the days when mediocrity was NOT rewarded.  Not only are relatively average professional athletes receiving millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements, many now even wear corporate logos on their uniforms that compete in size with the team emblem.

We may all be so desperate to “win the lottery” that we have forgotten as a society that true success comes from years of hard work, including trial AND error, and yes, winning AND losing.  Most of the world’s greatest inventors, statesmen, scientists, and artists, learned how to overcome failure before they experienced success.  One cannot succeed unless one accepts failure as an opportunity to work that much harder and smarter.

Sadly, we have seemingly all bought into a fantasyland where everyone deserves a trophy. I worry about our lack of true heroes today.  I can’t help but think it starts on the playgrounds where children are taught today that “everyone is a winner.”  I just don’t know.  When I lost a wrestling match in high school that I should have won, my father didn’t feel he had to pat me on the back and tell me everything was okay.  He instilled in me the meaning of hard work and how to overcome adversity on my own.  I looked up in the stands after that humiliating loss and as our eyes met, my father simply nodded gently, as if to say, “Ray, you know what you need to do, now do it.”

Neil Armstrong is being hailed as one of the great heroes of the 20th century for his achievement as the Commander of Apollo 11.  He was a member of “The Greatest Generation” who survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II and Korea, and rebuilt our nation to become the most advanced and most powerful in the world.  The Greatest Generation knew how to serve and not just how to take. They didn’t have to cheat, look to a lottery for success; they didn’t feel everyone deserves a trophy.

Heroes like Neil Armstrong –and the countless others of his generation with similar qualities—are the “right stuff” that I believe our nation sorely needs today.