Who the f*** is Neil Armstrong?

Sat on a train last night, my timeline on Twitter alternated between the X Factor and the death of Neil Armstrong, perhaps two opposite ends of the scale of human endeavour. Switching to a search on Neil Armstrong, I was amazed to see a significant number of tweets from teenagers along the following lines –

‘Who the f*** is Neil Armstrong?’

‘Don’t even know who Neil Armstrong is?’

‘Apparently Neil Armstrong isn’t a cyclist, so who is he? Everyone seems quite bummed out about it #confused’

I RT’d a collection of these tweets somewhat taken aback and saddened that they had not come across one of the most recognised people in world history and a couple of minutes saw the following tweet from a teacher in my timeline –

‘Dear 40-something dicks mocking teenagers who don’t know who Neil Armstrong is, what would you have tweeted when Douglas Bader died?’ followed shortly after by ‘cue waves of abuse from child geniuses who knew who everybody was who died when they were teenagers.’

Sadly I must have been a child genius back then because I knew who Douglas Bader was so I suppose I would have tweeted something like ‘RIP Douglas Bader – legend’ but, had I not known him, I would hope that I might have used Google to find out who he was before revealing my lack of knowledge to the world. But putting all that aside, surely the teacher has a point? Do we really expect teenagers to know something about a man and an event that most of their parents do not remember directly? It’s a fair point but we’re not talking about someone vaguely worthy of note or a minor historical figure. It’s not Douglas Bader. It’s not Gore Vidal, Whitney Houston or someone ‘really famous’ like Cheryl Cole or Joey off The Only Way Is Essex. It’s Neil f***ing Armstrong!

We’re talking about one of the ambitious projects mankind has ever undertaken and a space programme that coincides with the start of the technology age in which we have lived ever since. The computing power used to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth would probably now fit into a mobile phone with room to spare. Apollo inspired a generation of scientists and the spin offs from the space programme help shape our lives today e.g. LEDs, artificial limbs, tyre technology, water purification, solar energy. Even the technology required just to broadcast the moon landings live was groundbreaking. Apollo 11 was one of the first global TV broadcasts and of course the moon landing also gave us one of the most famous quotations in the English language “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.””(The ‘a’ was inaudible at the time). Now the man who gave us that quote, who symbolised the work and ambition of thousands of engineers and scientists over a decade and took that small step is no longer with us.

No one should expect teenagers to know everyone who has died. It’s not their fault that we have taken the moon landings for granted, failed to educate them about one of mankind’s greatest achievements and possibly missed an opportunity to inspire some child to a future career in science. However it might be great if we use this sad occasion to make some amends and sometime in the next school year, when the moon is visible, every child is taken out of the classroom even if for just five minutes and told that in 1969 before most of their parents were born and laptops, flat screen TVs, Xboxes and mobile phones had even been invented, a spacecraft spent four days travelling a quarter of a million miles to reach the moon and the first man to step foot on its surface was Neil Armstrong.’

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About Peter Domican
Marketer and change professional. Writer and photographer.

8 Responses to Who the f*** is Neil Armstrong?

  1. Pete Denton says:

    I saw some of the responses on twitter and agree. Everyone should know about certain historical events. First man on the moon should be one of them. Sad world we live in sometimes.

  2. tu says:

    Definitely.

  3. Devil’s advocate:
    Why is Neil Armstrong the man we should remember from the moon landings?

    As you note yourself, the technology that would now fit into the mobile phone, the pioneering physics and understanding of flight, were significant achievements that allowed spaceflight to be possible. Shouldn’t we remember the engineers and inventors just as well? Do we remember those people by name?

    Neil Armstrong has an amazing place in history, yes, but in some respects he was a test pilot on a single (admittedly remarkable) flight… is that really more significant or worth remembering than the modern idea of celebrity?

    • That’s a really good question and an interesting point. I can remember most of the astronauts and some of the key engineers / flight control people but I’m a geek! Armstrong always resented the limelight and put the emphasis on the thousands of engineers and workers. Most things in modern day life are a team effort but my hypothesis is that people like to identify with one person because somehow that makes it simpler, more personal, more human somehow. This personification is quite common even if it doesn’t reflect actual history. The ‘Higgs’ boson was proposed more or less simultaneously by three groups of about eight people but somehow Higgs got the glory. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France but seven of his team mates and Team Sky worked miracles to get him there. Turing has become the face of Bletchley code breakers and so it goes on.
      I’d love it if we really did celebrate the achievements of the space programme fully but if people can’t even remember the name of the guy who put the first foot on the moon, I think we’re on a loser. Better to settle for something and hope it inspires some of them to read more about it.

  4. Rob says:

    What angers me most is that given the flurry of RIP comments such individuals don’t take the 3 seconds it takes to find out, nor do they even bother to phrase their ignorance in a courteous manner (“who the fuck is…”). It comes across like they are wearing their apathy like a badge. The attitude is the inexcusable thing here, not the ignorance.

  5. Rachel says:

    I’m not particularly interested in space travel but I am interested in people, how we have developed, and things that have happened to shape the way we are today. And I do see Neil Armstrong as one of many significant people in humankind’s history that should be remembered and taught about. I also think the fact that he shirked the limelight is interesting in that he wasn’t keen to be a celebrity. I’m with you on the: “I would hope that I might have used Google to find out who he was before revealing my lack of knowledge to the world.” People should care when they haven’t heard of someone and attempt to find out what they don’t know. I expect crap TV has a lot to answer for unfortunately and an education system that is aimed at passing tests and not filling heads with knowledge and interest. All kids should be learning 20th century history in schools so they can learn from not only the the great discoveries of the past but the struggles to achieve them and the mistakes made. How can future generations move forward if they are not armed with enough information about the past?

    I wish I knew far more about history and am ashamed when I don’t know things

    Just going to Google Douglas Bader 😉

    PS Thought those teacher’s comments a bit rubbish.

    • I don’t think it’s fair to pick on kids for their lack of knowledge of a subject but some of the tweets I saw could have been better phrased or even better not sent at all. However, that’s youth and it wasn’t really any different when I was at school. Let’s just say it’s not the best attitude with which to enter an increasingly difficult world and move on.
      I think the argument of the teacher was that because it was 40 odd years ago, that it wasn’t that relevant anymore and why should kids be expected to know about it anymore than any other historical fact. It’s a perfectly fair point but I don’t agree with it.
      I seem to remember about 10-15 years ago that respect for the war dead of WW1 and WW2 was crumbling away. After all the wars were long over and it wasn’t relevant to young people. Through public pressure and education, that seems to have been reversed and a knowledge of the World Wars is seen as important. My argument is that, unlike wars and economic development (extremely well covered in 20th century history), the moon landings are one of man’s most significant achievements yet they seem to merit little or no attention despite their pivotal part in the development of technology in the last 50 years.

  6. Libby says:

    Here, here. It seems inconceivable that there are people, even young people who have not heard of Neil Armstrong.

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