Not many people can say they’ve met the first man on the moon. But mingle with astronomers gathered in Beijing for a conference and you’ll come across one or two—even at breakfast—who can reflect personally about Neil Armstrong.
Australian Ronald Ekers, for one, worked on the radio telescope that picked up Armstrong’s heartbeat and other signals during the historic Apollo mission of 1969. Several decades later, he expected technical chatter when he found himself seated next to Armstrong at a dinner.
Instead the celebrated astronaut brought up Captain James Cook’s 18th-century sailing expeditions, suggesting that going to the moon was “maybe a little dangerous” in comparison. “I found him an incredible guy,” says Ekers, now a fellow at Australia’s science agency CSIRO. “He was so humble.”
Modesty. Bravery. Big dreams. Other worlds. Armstrong raises these themes among the space scientists at the triennial International Astronomical Union meeting. Not all of them do work directly impacted by the moon landing. Many dreamed of being astronauts, yes, but found themselves in the role of looking at space—a more feasible way of reaching the stars.
At 33, extragalactic astrophysicist Raffaele D’Abrusco says he envies his parents for having witnessed Armstrong’s lunar steps. “Their generation can be proud of something for humankind. My generation doesn’t have that so much; we don’t seem to have leaders pursuing big dreams.”
Russian astronomer Andrei Dambis was on the competing side of the Cold War space race and regards Armstrong as a hero nonetheless. “Not many people know how dangerous it is to go into space,” says the Milky Way expert, recalling a classmate who lost her cosmonaut father when a 1970s Soviet spacecraft depressurized.
In a field devoted to looking upward and outward, Armstrong’s legacy is as much about keeping one’s feet on the ground. IAU president and former Hubble director Robert Williams reflects readily about what he learned from the man he met about a year ago.
“He managed to focus on you rather than talk about himself,” says Williams. “He led by quiet example and maintained modesty. I attach great importance to that.”
At the end of her talk on NASA’s exoplanet search, Kepler Mission Scientist Natalie Batalha fast-forwarded to a slide showing U.S. astronaut Sally Ride, who died last month, and Armstrong. Bringing a philosophical close to a lecture populated with periodic tables of planets and photometry graphs, Batalha offered this thought. “There will come a day when no one’s left who has stepped on another world.”
Luna Shyr, an editor at National Geographic magazine, owes her name to Neil Armstrong. She was born on the astronaut’s birthday.