Editor’s Note: Brad Meltzer’s thrillers, including his newest, “The Escape Artist,” regularly land at the #1 spot on the bestseller list, and he is also the author of the “Ordinary People Change the World” series. “I am Neil Armstrong,” the latest in the series, will be published September 11. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Neil Armstrong is making news again. Some might think it’s because of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the moon landing, or the new Ryan Gosling film “First Man,” or especially the fact that Donald Trump is publicly complaining about said movie and whether or not the American flag has enough screen time. But in my mind, the real reason Neil Armstrong is back is because we need him. More than ever.
For years, in our “I Am” book series, I’ve studied and written about American heroes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: You don’t get the heroes you want; you get the heroes you need. So look around – and look especially at Neil Armstrong’s sudden resurgence. Certainly, his greatest accomplishment was being the first person to walk on the moon. But in 2018, what’s equally important are the lessons he gave us throughout his journey.
Lesson #1 – Humility matters
Whenever Armstrong talked about flying an aircraft or a spacecraft, he used the term “we” – not “I.” He knew that every milestone he achieved required the help of so many others – from scientists and engineers, to welders and mathematicians, to the tailors who sewed the spacesuits, to all the astronauts from previous missions.
When Apollo 11 was finally ready, he said to the flight director, “Please tell everyone who worked on this that this is their launch. Tell them they’ll be riding with us all the way.”
Remember when our leaders used the term “we” rather than “I?”
It was the same after he became famous. With his legendary moonwalk, Armstrong became the most famous person in the world. But even then, he never bragged, never sold out, and never put his face on T-shirts or opened a fast food joint with his name on it. He was humble.
Remember when humility was an American virtue? Our leaders have lost this idea. We need to get it back. It’s the only way we’ll take off. Indeed, Armstrong’s sense of humility is why I decided to write “I am Neil Armstrong.” I wanted to show my kids that Instagram fame isn’t nearly as impressive as understated modesty.
So how does that prove Armstrong is the hero we need today? Back during the 2016 election, as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were bashing each other on a daily basis, something surprising happened with the sales of our “I Am” books. Three books in particular started taking off: “I am George Washington,” “I am Rosa Parks” and “I am Martin Luther King Jr.” Parents and grandparents were tired of turning on the TV and seeing politicians. What they wanted to show their kids were leaders. How do I know? In twenty years as an author, I’ve never sold out a book at Amazon. With the 2016 election, Amazon was sold out of “I am Martin Luther King Jr.” for nearly a month. For a full year after, sales of all the books, from George Washington, to Rosa Parks, to Abraham Lincoln, skyrocketed.
Throughout history, heroes appear when there’s a hunger. Right now, whatever your political side, America is starving for heroes. Especially humble ones.
Lesson #2 – Hard work matters
When Neil Armstrong was eight years old, his goal was to climb a silver maple tree – the biggest one in his backyard. It seemed impossible to young Neil. The tree was so big and he was small. How did he do it? He needed to be brave (though as a kid, he was afraid of Santa Claus). He needed to be smart (in first grade, he read more than 100 books). And he needed to be patient (he remained calm, even when his frustrated brother kicked the table during Monopoly).
But in order for Neil to get to the top of the tree, he had to take that first step. To him, climbing the tree was like a puzzle. He needed to pick the right branches in the right order. But on that day he was finally climbing the tree, he grabbed a dead branch. The branch snapped and young Neil fell fifteen feet, landing flat on his back.
His sister came running. The wind was knocked out of him, but he was okay. Still, the most important thing young Neil did?
He got back up again.
Even as a child, Armstrong knew success takes hard work. At ten years old, he mowed grass at a cemetery for ten cents an hour. Then he worked at a bakery. With the money he earned, he saved up for what he loved most: airplanes.
First, he collected toy planes. Then he saved for a flying license. Eventually, he got his real pilot’s license before he got his driver’s license. From there, he moved up to be a military pilot, then a test pilot, then, of course, to be an astronaut, each step vital to helping him climb to the top.
Today, we love to tell the story of Neil Armstrong taking that giant leap for all mankind. But the only reason he got to take that leap is because of the thousands of smaller steps that came before it.
Lesson 3 – Instead of being loud, be calm
In March of 1966, Neil Armstrong’s first spaceflight was on the Gemini VIII. The goal was to fly alongside and dock with another spacecraft so they were both linked together. It was the first time two spacecraft ever connected in space. When they docked, everyone started celebrating. But then, suddenly, there was a short circuit in one of their thrusters. The spacecraft became undocked and spun out of control.
Even in this chaos, Armstrong stayed perfectly calm. He kept his eyes on the controls, firing a different thruster to stop their spin. Right there, he learned another vital lesson: Nothing in space is easy.
He saw that firsthand during his most famous moon landing. As the Lunar Module (Eagle) was headed to the moon’s surface, landing was challenging. Their radar and instruments weren’t very accurate. They couldn’t even tell how far they were from the moon’s surface. Armstrong had to use a stopwatch and quick math to figure it out.
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Oh, and did I mention they weren’t close to NASA’s planned landing spot? On top of all that, the ground wasn’t smooth. The moon rocks were as big as cars.
Armstrong never panicked – even when they had less than a minute of fuel left.
Again, Armstrong made it work.
Today, whether it’s on Twitter or anywhere else, we value those who are the loudest – those who are best at getting noticed. But let’s never forget – and let’s never stop teaching our kids – that it’s quite often the calm and quiet ones, the hardest working ones, and yes, the most humble ones, who offer America far more valuable lessons.