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An icon of the space age brings experiences to Athens

What do you do for an encore when you have flown 78 combat missions, test-piloted over 200 types of aircraft at speeds up to mach 6, commanded two different space missions and backed up three others, survived multiple in-flight near-fatalities, been blasted out of orbit on a rocket packing 160 million horsepower, taken the first human steps on non-earthly soil, been showered with honors and supped with kings and presidents – and all by the time you’re 40? You take up solo gliding as a hobby, for one thing. Floating through the air in a sailplane «is the closest you can come to being a bird,» Neil Armstrong once said. His exploits in, and beyond, Earth’s atmosphere have made his name as immortal as the undisturbed bootprints he and Buzz Aldrin left in the lunar dust on the first-ever moonwalk in July 1969 during Apollo 11. Another option is to take your immense learning and unparalleled experiences on the lecture circuit, as he did Wednesday evening to a deeply appreciative Athenian audience as keynote speaker at a conference on «From Vision to Achievement.» His talk, on managing risk in major enterprises, ranged from the history of science to 21st century challenges and was laced with insight, humor, and human understanding. With his reluctance to claim a space-hero mantle as well as his warm delivery and earnest fielding of audience questions he may have heard 100 times before, he showed anew that the truly great are also humble. With his knack for being in the right place in a space program focused on achieving the near-impossible, Neil Armstrong was at the epicenter of the Apollo program, involving 400,000 people and costing some $26 billion (in 1960s dollars). With the surreal but deeply moving black-and-white televised first moonwalk, he became, reluctantly, the human face of a scientific and public policy juggernaut. It is a label he has struggled with, earning him a reputation for reclusiveness, as the «lunar Lindbergh.» Protesting his fame, Armstrong has long insisted he was simply chosen to lead the mission that got to the moon first. His determination to resist the hoopla has itself been almost heroic in a celebrity-obsessed, blog-saturated world where achieving 15 minutes of fame has become a goal rather than an embarrassment for so many. Perhaps now, at 75, he is opening up to assessments of his role. Armstrong on risk Armstrong, who has few peers on the subject of risk management, admitted that he gave limited prior thought to the first words of his moonwalk («That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind») because he thought there was a 50 percent chance of an aborted landing. «You have to blame me for the words» was his typically self-effacing response. All big achievements, he asserted, require the management of great risks, especially in an era «engulfed in a torrent of change.» If you want safety, sit on the fence; but to learn, you «must get on the machine,» drawing from the Wright brothers’ flights a century ago. Persistence is far more important in his view than talent. Mixing admiration with amusement, his examples ranged from Thomas Edison (inventor of electricity) to Ernest Shackleton, who engineered an open-boat escape from the claws of Antarctic ice, to Elizabeth Taylor in her unending search for the perfect husband. He recounted the early space race, when early Soviet advances (Sputnik satellites 1 and 2; and the first two cosmonauts in space) unleashed a competitive drive in both countries «obsessed» with getting a man in space. The steep trajectory came as an immense surprise to Armstrong; even as a test pilot, he never thought he would see space flight in his lifetime. Armstrong peppered his Apollo recounting with examples of useful risk-avoidance. For example, planners chose the safest, not fastest, trajectory to the moon; the «free return trip» option could utilize lunar gravity to expedite an emergency return – which helped save the Apollo 13 crew (recounted in the 1995 film). During that ill-fated flight, he added, fuel tanks exploded at a benign stage. «You will encounter trouble when you least expect it,» he said. Another example – as much of political folly as scientific ingenuity – was the 1969 target date for a moon landing (set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961), which fell at the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle, when solar flares, equal in strength to millions of hydrogen bombs, produce dangerous radiation levels. Plans were hatched to use the tank fuel as a shield against high-energy protons and to recruit amateur astronomers to give advance warnings of solar flares to NATO in time to make adjustments. These were never needed, yet the astronauts also «saw flashes on our retinas,» evidence of solar high-energy particles. (Incidentally, at the peak of the next solar cycle, astronauts would have suffered five times the lethal dose.) The lunar descent, he insisted, was far riskier than the celebrated moonwalk. Armstrong overrode the autopilot that was flashing unfamiliar alarms and leading the ungainly lander toward a boulder-filled crater. He then flew the craft «like a helicopter» to a soft landing on the Sea of Tranquility with under a minute’s worth of fuel remaining. At any rate, former test pilots regarded space flight as less risky than flying cutting-edge aircraft. The actual landing brought surprise and elation, for others as much as for the crew. Even in a computerized spaceship, things go wrong, with some 150-200 warnings popping up in a typical space flight. Through it all, he said, one must accept the doubts but do it anyway; «prepare, then jump» is an apt metaphor for life. There is «little satisfaction in claiming a prize not fairly earned,» while risk, he maintained, is «the spice that makes life worth living» – bold but hard-earned words. Asked about 21st century challenges, Armstrong said information technology is changing life at dizzying speeds, but «our goal as a society should be to improve the quality of the human»; that is, to improve ourselves. Advances in ethics, character, and governance can be as valuable as, for example, a future Mars expedition. New perspectives Just 24 people have achieved «escape velocity» – that 11,493 extra kilometers per hour necessary to add to orbital speed in order to escape «the chains of (Earth’s) gravity» and to view the Earth as a «giant blue medicine ball covered with lacy white clouds.» Stepping on the lunar surface, he said, was «an awesome experience» with an overwhelming absence of anything familiar. «I really hoped to see something I could recognize,» he said. «Fear,» he maintained, «was not an ingredient» on his historic voyage, although he and his crew had plenty to be apprehensive about. The main worry, he said, was «making a mistake… an error of your own,» negating the work of so many. Could people live on the moon? «They certainly could, yes,» he asserted, before adding wryly that it would involve temperature swings of 230 celsius, constant indoor living, dodging ultra-violet radiation bombardment, meteorites and cosmic rays and surviving 300-hour days. Fielding the inevitable question of whether it was all a fraud, he said, «The only thing more difficult than Apollo would be to fake it!» Such answers made hearing him a palpable pleasure that will linger in the memory as surely as those moonwalk images have done.