Astronaut Neil Armstrong 'Embodied Our Dreams'

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died over the weekend at the age of 82. Steve Inskeep talks to Neil Degrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, about Armstrong's impact on space exploration.

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NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's remember the man who spoke those words on the moon. Neil Armstrong died on Saturday after a lifetime that inspired many people, including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium who is on the line. Good morning. Welcome back to the program.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, good morning. Thanks for having me back.

INSKEEP: So how did you meet Neil Armstrong?

TYSON: I was 14 years old on board the SS Canberra, which is a huge ocean liner that crossed the Atlantic Ocean to put itself into the position to see a total solar eclipse in the summer of 1973. And he was one of the collected luminaries, and experts who were brought onto the ship to increase the educational value of what was going on. And I was just a kid, and there he was.

He was alone, a quiet guy. And curiously, at that time - like yes, he had just been on the moon a few years earlier, but he wasn't mobbed by everybody. It was a very, sort of, busy time with people preparing to see the eclipse.

INSKEEP: Did he pay attention to you as a 14 year old?

TYSON: He definitely - he had a conversation with me and was very friendly and was very warm, and so it was my first encounter with him - with someone who is a hero, but of course later on he was a very private citizen. And so we made him the hero that he was. And that's a very different kind of - there are other kinds of heroes where they're out there trying to get in the limelight and they're - and so it's a very different kind of person contained in Neil Armstrong.

INSKEEP: Well, when you say a quiet guy, I mean part of the reason he was chosen, we read, was not only that he was smart and obviously very brave, but he had to seem flawless. He had to be somebody who wasn't going to fly off the handle or make mistakes.

TYSON: Well, I think that's certainly the case, and so the guy was smooth. I mean, if you look at his heartbeat when he landed on the moon, yes, it was slightly elevated. It's the kind of heartbeat that any of us would get at the gym. And so, yeah, the guy was very even keeled.

But I think, for me, what matters there, is he's an American icon because he embodied all of our dreams of what it is to explore. And since we haven't been back to the moon in 40 years, for me, part of me died with him, because the dream hasn't been sustained. And that worries me, greatly, about the future of us as a space-faring nation.

INSKEEP: Was his accomplishment, then, a dead end?

TYSON: It has been, and if we're not back out of low Earth orbit for another 20 years, it makes me wonder whether it'll ever happen again. So it's a sad moment, because the future did not become real for his achievement.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much, Doctor Tyson.

TYSON: OK. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Also the author of "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier."

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