Apollo's first moonwalker Neil Armstrong was honored today as NASA Ambassador of Exploration at an event hosted by the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Ohio. During the televised ceremony, Armstrong was presented with a small sample of a moon rock he returned from the lunar surface, which in turn he donated to the center's Museum of Natural History and Science for public display.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin introduced Armstrong to the invited audience, which included members of the astronaut's family.
In addition to commanding the first moon landing in 1969, Armstrong was honored for his X-15 rocket plane flights and for piloting Gemini 8, "by all accounts the most harrowing space mission that the United States has yet executed and from which survival was possible," recounted Griffin. "Neil is, if nothing else, an engineering test pilot, and in that milieu, is a test pilot's test pilot."
Accepting the award, Armstrong described the acrylic-encased moon rock as "impressive" while still acknowledging that it was only on loan from NASA. "I get to keep it myself only so long as I speak today, so I am going to be talking longer than I otherwise would," quipped Armstrong.
Armstrong used his time to explain why he had chosen a natural science museum to exhibit the award. "Many here would know that natural history is the history of things in nature--animal, vegetable or mineral--and excludes humans and their activities. So we might conclude that the recounting of human activities is therefore, by the process of elimination, unnatural history," explained Armstrong. "Today, I'd like to recount some of the things we have learned and talk just a bit about a specific, but very thin slice of natural history."
"Many eons ago, maybe half a star lifetime," began Armstrong, twisting a tale that encompassed the formation of the solar system and the Earth-Moon system to the formation of "his" rock.
"A sea of molten basalt is slowly solidifying. As the crust cools, it cracks. Currents of hot lava press upward, fracturing and sculpting the fresh rock above it. A piece of this young basalt is completely separated from its mother. His brothers and sisters lie nearby. Let's call him "Bok," suggested Armstrong of the focus of his story. The moonwalker recounted the adventure of the small stone, breathing life into geological processes that governed its aging.
"During the next half-billion years, Bok changed as he grew into adulthood," continued Armstrong. "Crystals of plagioclase which had somehow formed during his solidification added a few plates of molecules. He felt this gnawing in his viscera, like a cancer.
Occasionally, he thought he felt the itch of a change of olivine in his vesicles. It was not organic life, but in his universe and by his standards, it was life."
Summarizing billions of years in only a few minutes, Armstrong told of Bok's journey from the Moon to Earth.
"It started with a rude awakening one lunar morning. A peculiar white creature was lifting him with an unusual metal device. He was roughly thrown into a box with some acquaintances he knew only slightly and then the lid was closed and it was dark. There was a brief force, then a sense of lightness for a time. Then another brief force and then his weight somehow returned and changed. He felt at least six times heavier than the 190 grams he had weighed back at the Sea of Tranquility on Luna. Suddenly, the lid opened, there was light and more of those strange creatures, somehow different and peculiar mechanisms. There was a strange pressure of an atmosphere. And there was a number beside him: 10071. Clearly, they didn't know his name."
Armstrong concluded while referencing the award that was sitting to his left on the stage. "If you want to see Bok and have him clarify any points that may have been obscure, you may do so. He is, or at least part of him is right there. The sample on the award is a chip of 2.039 grams, a chip off the old Bok, you might say," Armstrong said to laughter and applause.
"Thank you Mr. Administrator," Armstrong said to Griffin, "for giving me this opportunity to receive and have possession, ever so briefly of Bok. And I am now delighted to present him to this museum center and I hope I have persuaded you that a place of natural history is a great place for Bok to be."
Museum President Doug McDonald accepted the rock, "Bok", on behalf of the Cincinnati Center where it will go on display along with a replica of Armstrong's spacesuit.
NASA is presenting the Ambassador of Exploration Award to the 38 astronauts and other key individuals who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. To date, 15 moon rocks have been awarded and placed on public display, including one to Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who was also present at today's ceremony honoring Armstrong.
"I've been lucky enough to have a lot of opportunities in my own life, so I am not usually given over too much to envy of other people. That just isn't part of my nature," said Senator Glenn, "but for Neil, I make a big exception."
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