Melissa Carter: Remembering Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, and the heroism of human space flight

A test pilot and member of other space missions, Armstrong is best known for the historic footprint he placed on the moon on July 21, 1969.  Before he made that one small step for man, he had less than a minute worth of fuel remaining in the lunar module when he landed it on the moon.

Having kept his cool on two previous occasions in his career that almost took his life, Armstrong proved to be someone who excelled under extreme pressure. Upon leaving the moon, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a patch to commemorate NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in pursuit of space.

While working on her doctorate in physics in 1978, Sally Ride responded to an ad in the Stanford University student paper encouraging men, and for the first time women, to apply for the NASA astronaut corps.

Some 8,000 other people applied, but by the next year Ride was an astronaut candidate. In 1983, she flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger at age 32, which is still an American record. By coming out in her obituary, Ride became the first known LGBT astronaut.

Don’t get me wrong: I like robots. I was fascinated when rovers on Mars began to successfully communicate with Earth, and saddened when NASA announced last year that they had permanently lost contact with Spirit. And I understand the desire to save lives by letting machinery do the dirty work.

But that also limits our chances as a society to have heroes like Armstrong and Ride who, knowing they could easily lose their lives, stepped into their respective ships and blasted into the sky.

The proof is in the ratings. Earlier this month, Curiosity landed on Mars while 3.2 million people watched. Comparatively, when Armstrong touched down on the moon 43 years ago, it was watched by 600 million people.

These numbers prove that as intriguing as exploration is, we are truly inspired by those faced with incredible danger who show courage and self-sacrifice for the greater good. It’s hard to do that sitting in front of a monitor some 33 million miles away from your robotic camera on Mars.

According to USA Today, when the Obama administration canceled NASA’s plans to return to the moon, Armstrong was so dismayed that, in the final years of his life, he gave up his cherished privacy to voice frequent and loud criticism of the decision. The state of NASA’s human-space-exploration plans, he told Congress last fall, is “lamentable, embarrassing and unacceptable.”

Of the many pictures that decorate my office walls, there is only one dedicated to a machine. I’m not sure how to categorize my 3rd Grade Super Scientist Award, but the rest highlight people. Some are actors from “Star Trek,” “Babylon 5,” and “Star Wars.” Others have worked on art or animation of space.

One of my favorites is a Louis Vuitton ad, with Sally Ride, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell sitting on the hood of a car staring up at a full moon. The tagline reads, “Some journeys change mankind forever.”

As we honor the lives of Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, may we always remember that the full beauty of any journey is only known to the one who takes it.


Melissa Carter is also a writer for Huffington Post. She broke ground as the first out lesbian radio personality on a major station in Atlanta and was one of the few out morning show personalities in the country. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCarter