How I learned to love the real Neil Armstrong and embrace the space race | Maggie Aderin Pocock

The Apollo 11 commander taught me to look beyond the stereotype of astronauts as simply white, male daredevils

• Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and presenter of the Sky at Night

Throughout 2019, many of us indulged in a sort of moon madness as we relived the historic moment, on 20 July 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the lunar surface and uttered the now immortal words: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It is thought that about 20% of the world’s population, 650 million people, tuned in to see Armstrong take that small step, and it was fascinating to look back and celebrate the event half a century later. I grew up in the aftermath of the moon landing and this, combined with watching the Clangers (who also celebrated their 50th anniversary last year), sealed my fate: I had to become a space scientist. I longed to take the same small step that Armstrong had made, but as I grew older, I started to doubt whether I had the right stuff.

I guess, from my perspective, the 12 people who made it to the moon’s surface did not seem to have much in common with me. Firstly, they were all white and male. To date, no women have landed on the moon. This gender gap didn’t seem unusual in 1969 (although the USSR had put Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, out there some six years before). This was the era in which women were advised to have the children tucked away and a cocktail ready when the man of the house returned from work. The 12 “lunanauts” seemed like typical white American men of the 50s and 60s – the sort you would see in the TV series Mad Men.

It didn’t help when my older sister Helen told me about segregation in the US. I stood next to her in the kitchen, six years old and open-mouthed in disbelief. These struggles were beautifully conveyed in the context of the space race, in the recent book and film Hidden Figures, which charts the challenges and successes of three African American women who worked for Nasa at this exciting time.

On top of this, the first astronauts were selected from the test pilot gene pool. These guys were the very definition of the right stuff: adrenalin-fuelled daredevils with crew cuts, almost defying the laws of physics to get the job done. And to my mind, on this pinnacle of white, male, testosterone-powered dominance, stood Armstrong: selected from hero stock to be the first one to step out on to the moon and seal the US dream of supremacy in space.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the moon.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the moon. Photograph: AP

I saw him as a modern-day icon, a cartoonish space jockey straight out of a film. But in 2019, through a year of celebrations, I realised that the real Armstrong was significantly different. I watched a premiere of the biopic Armstrong, with Neil’s son and granddaughter, and was moved to discover the reality of a quiet man who was thrust into global fame. And the fact that Nasa chose this introverted engineer to be the first person to step out on to another body gave me new respect for the space mission, too. It was not merely a gung-ho race to beat the Russians after a dismal start by the US, but a brave and optimistic beginning to our explorations of the solar system beyond Earth. And Nasa was careful to find the right man for the job.

Armstrong’s longstanding passion was aviation, and he got the bug after taking his first flight at the age of six. Quiet and introspective by nature, he joined the space programme after losing his two-year-old daughter to cancer. He was the commander of the Gemini 8 mission, which went badly wrong after performing the first manual docking manoeuvre in space. An investigation into the potential disaster showed that Armstrong’s cool, logical thinking under immense physical and mental pressure saved the mission and his fellow astronaut David Scott.

All this made him the ideal candidate to command the Apollo 11 mission, which proved to be just as challenging as Gemini 8 and needed a steady hand at the controls. There is a rumour, defended by the makers of the 2018 film First Man, that Armstrong left his daughter’s bracelet on the lunar surface as a memorial to her. After he returned to Earth and became an unwilling global celebrity, his quiet and thoughtful manner led some people to call him a recluse.

So, after a year of celebrations, I would like to thank Armstrong for all his brave endeavours in space and for his struggles back here on Earth. For taking that first giant leap for, let’s say, humankind, and making a generation of people excited about space. But I thank him most of all for the timely reminder that judging people based on stereotypes is never a good idea. As a black, female scientist working in a white, male-dominated domain, I have felt the smart of this type of assumption myself and assumed that I was more aware of the trap than most. But getting to peer a little way inside the icon, Neil Armstrong, has reminded me to be ever vigilant.

• Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and presenter of BBC TV’s Sky at Night

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Maggie Aderin-Pocock

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