Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Personal Tribute to Neil Armstrong

On July 20th, 1969, I was a little boy in the living room of our country home north of Toronto. We could, just barely, receive TV signals coming from Buffalo. The screen was more fuzzy than usual, but I was transfixed on those ghostly black and white images coming from the Moon. There they were, my heroes, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, bouncing around on the Moon in an oddly slow but magical dance. I knew this was big. What I didn’t know was the event would shape my life in ways I couldn’t imagine. 

Following Apollo 11, it seemed that lunar missions were happening all the time. Barely one would finish and we’d be hearing about plans for the next one. There was no question in my mind that the concurrence of the Apollo program, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek were all points on the same path. I could be a part of an exciting future as humanity ventured to the Moon and beyond as a spacefaring species… boldly going…

Then it all stopped. As Apollo 17 ended in 1972, I became an orphan of Apollo, as did many in my generation who had been so inspired by Apollo’s recalibration of the possible.

Thankfully, the gift of Apollo didn’t fade and while in university I sought out others whose sense of infinite possibilities remained as strong as mine. Connecting at first through the social mediums of the time - letters and phone calls - I found kindred spirits in Peter Diamandis and Todd Hawley, and together we set out to connect future leaders to help us create that future we felt we had been promised. In the 1980’s we founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, the Space Generation, and International Space University, driven and motivated by the feats of Apollo that had inspired our childhoods and proven to us that nothing was impossible. Today these organizations continue to grow and inspire, educate and connect new generations of space leaders who are reaching for the stars.

I’ve been fortunate to come to know many of the Apollo astronauts throughout my career, but despite many common friends, I didn’t meet Neil Armstrong until just this past summer. Neil had ventured to a conference in Silicon Valley to give one of his rare public talks. Afterwards we shook hands and had a pleasant exchange.  It meant a lot to me that he knew about SEDS and ISU.

Neil’s “one small step” in 1969 was a very special moment in the evolution of humanity, beginning our transformation into a multi-world species. I wonder how many species have done so. And how unimaginably exotic those adventures to worlds beyond other worlds must have been. Some day we may share our history with another spacefaring species and learn about them, and if we do, we will speak of our own Neil Armstrong, the first emissary of Earth to set foot on another world.

“I believe that every human being has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine.” – Neil Armstrong


  1. Dr. Richards,

    It was a sad moment for everyone in the space industry to hear of this news. I felt like we had a lost great light when Chris Stott broke the news to everyone at the TEDx. Although the moon landing happened before my generation, his influence has left behind a ripple that has affected my own choices. I saw Neil Armstrong at the Palo Alto NSRC this February and having him give a rare talk was incredible.

    Space will live on,


  2. Bob,

    I was able to go to Neil Armstrong's memorial service in Washington, DC and I can only echo your sentiments about the effects that both the Apollo program and Armstrong had in inspiring the future, despite the government cutbacks. Having recently graduated with a degree in mechanical/aerospace engineering (and job hunting! Hint hint), I can point to the space program and NASA's accomplishments as being a driving factor in my life. I cannot wait for the day when we return to the Moon and travel beyond.



Civilized, constructive comments are welcome. Less is more.