The words "hero" and "icon" don't do justice to Neil Armstrong, the commander of NASA's Apollo 11 space flight and the first man on the moon. Indeed, Armstrong, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 82 uttered one of the most memorable statements of all time: "That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." That famous line, the first ever transmitted from the moon to Earth, inspired millions. In a 2005 commencement address (PDF) at his graduate alma mater, the University of Southern California, Armstrong showed that his ability to inspire and offer some much-needed perspective had endured.
Armstrong, who was born in 1930 and began studying aerospace engineering at Purdue University in 1947—he didn't graduate from college until 1955 due to service in the Korean War— took note of the differences between his own college experience and that of the USC crowd. "Students of my vintage did not have calculators, cell phones, credit cards, personal computers, internet or reality TV," Armstrong told the graduates, and if "a faculty member at that time suggested preparation for a career in spacecraft operations, he or she would have been ridiculed."
However, rapid technological advances meant that "within a decade, satellites were being used for a variety of scientific and commercial purposes. Probes had been sent to nearby planets and humans were frequently flying into space." We "can't imagine the change and related opportunity that will arise for you in the years ahead," Armstrong said. But, he told the graduates, "Hopefully, the things you have learned here will help you be ready for them. And you will not stop learning—learning is a lifelong process—and you have a great start."
Armstrong acknowledged that "Custom dictates that a commencement speaker give a word of advice to the new graduates," but he humbly confessed to feeling "a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions merit your attention."
He then went on to offer some poignant advice that each of us, no matter what stage of life we may find ourselves in, would be wise to remember:
"The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident. You can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources. What are not easily stolen from you without your cooperation are your principles and your values. They are your most important possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man. Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program for the human character. And what will that future bring? I do not know, but it will be exciting."
While no one else will ever be the first person on the moon, if we follow Armstrong's memorable words of wisdom, perhaps our future will be assured of many more giant leaps for mankind.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons