I sometimes wonder whether Neil Armstrong wrestled all the way to the Moon with what he would say when he stepped out onto the surface. The answer is probably tucked away somewhere in the abundant literature on the Moon landings. I know that if it were me, I’d be turning over the options in my mind for months in advance. What do you say upon achieving what is obviously one of the most significant accomplishments in history? Did Armstrong ponder alternatives even as he descended from the lander?
In any case, the words carried a great truth. Giant leaps are made up of small steps, and not just the first step of a single astronaut leaving a footprint. It wasn’t just a Saturn V that got Apollo 11 to the Moon — it was also Einstein, and Newton, and Leibniz, and thousands of mathematicians, physicists, engineers and yes, philosophers throughout history whose work pushed the possibility forward. This is, not coincidentally, the philosophy of the Tau Zero Foundation: ad astra incrementis. To the stars one step at a time. The operating principle is that each step is a little bigger than the last.
My uncle had come up from Florida for his yearly visit when Apollo 11 landed. I remember that he and I both found one moment in the descent utterly magical. It was when Buzz Aldrin called out ‘picking up some dust.’ Eagle was descending over that fractal landscape — very hard to tell just how high you were using vision alone — but suddenly there was the confirmation. The little craft was low enough that its engine was pushing around dust that had lain undisturbed for millions of years, and here were human beings seeing that with their own eyes.
I used to think that Armstrong’s ‘one giant leap for all mankind’ statement was too canned, a bit of celestial boilerplate. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate it more and more. The philosopher Lao Tzu said “You accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” Most of us lose sight of the larger picture in the minutiae of daily life, but the small acts are the things we do every day that accumulate and, when chosen well, push the envelope a little bit further. Armstrong and Lao Tzu remind us that it’s time not only to celebrate Apollo 11’s achievements, but also to get back to work.