In My Words: ‘Neil Armstrong, a retrospective’

Associate Professor Tom Nelson in the School of Communications reflects on astronaut Neil Armstrong's qualities in the era of social media.

Associate Professor Tom Nelson


The following column was published this week in the Gaston Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.


Neil Armstrong, a retrospective
By Tom Nelson –

By the time you read these words Neil Armstrong will belong to history.

The funeral is this week for the first person to walk on the moon. And that will be that. Armstrong will become an idea instead of flesh to those who come after us.

It is a quiet, unassuming transition, the way Armstrong wanted it.

I had just turned 15 that July day when Armstrong walked on the moon and I am ashamed to say that my immaturity got in the way of my appreciation of the man. I thought Armstrong was supremely boring. Even Armstrong’s first words spoken from the moon, “that’s one small step…”, struck me as zombie-like, stiff, or in the parlance of the time, a real drag.

There was nothing about Neil Armstrong that grabbed my attention. And that is my point.

More than four decades later, on the cusp of my 60th year, I understand clearly that Armstrong’s self-effacement, humility and lack of flash were the very things that should have given me pause. Just try to explain the virtue of humility to any 15-year-old, then or now.

I was driving past a car wash on the day Neil Armstrong died. It was all quite random. A sign outside the carwash read, “Get Noticed in a Clean Car.”

Get noticed! It is the mantra of modern life. Look at me. Here I am. Facebook. Twitter. Let me tell you about me. It is endless. Relentless. Please just make it stop.

With Neil Armstrong it never began. The most famous man in the world, should I say universe, was nearly invisible to us. He never made Charles Lindbergh’s mistake of thinking he was more interesting than he was. Unlike Lindbergh, Armstrong kept his ideologies to himself.

Armstrong never mistook his deed for omniscience even though he rode astride a chariot named Apollo.

I mourn Neil Armstrong as the last of the quiet ones. There will be no others. The cult of personality now reigns supreme.

Rest in peace. The living cannot. There is too much chatter.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

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