Armstrong was an American hero. As a public figure, he inspired a new generation of scientists. As an explorer, he was the first to set foot on a landscape where no one had ever been before. As a symbolic figure, he, along with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, represented the crowning achievement of federally funded science in the first half of the 20th century.
Armstrong was humble in his role. He understood that that such an accomplishment was not his alone, but rather built out of the efforts of thousands of people working together. His passing, and how he regarded his life’s accomplishments, reminds us that a collective involvement and investment in science can lead to imagination-bending moments.
I believe we can best honor his legacy by continuing to embrace the tradition that made him the symbol of American exceptionalism. In short, we need to metaphorically shoot for the moon. And while we still do shoot for the moon in many ways, the Higgs Boson being one example, that spirit has waned in recent decades. The federal scientific investment has continued to decline as a percent of gross domestic product since the early 1970s. U.S. projects such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment are in need of major financial support. NASA is staring down budget cuts and increased criticisms of big science projects.
Without a robust federal investment in science where will we find the 21st century’s “Neil Armstrong”? Just as Armstrong needed the support of thousands to eventually stand on the lunar surface, so too will the great figures of the 21st century. And it begins with the willingness to invest now in scientific fantasies.
The American Physical Society and scientists everywhere will forever remember the impact Neil Armstrong has had not just on the scientific enterprise, but also on the hearts and minds of the entire world. Let’s honor Armstrong’s legacy by making science a priority.