Do you know which leg Neil Armstrong preferred?
In a world where everyone is so certain about everything, it's worth being reminded of the value of doubt
This week I met someone who told me something I didn’t know.
The world right now seems jam-packed with people who are filled with passionate certainty. Everyone seems very intensely convinced they know what should be done that isn’t being done, or shouldn’t be done that is being done, and everyone seems to know exactly what step to take and how to take it, given half the chance.
How are people so sure about everything? Nowadays it sometimes feels as though uncertainty in the face of complexity is morally culpable. Recently I mentioned that I didn’t have a firm opinion on whether or not Michael Peterson on The Staircase really did kill his wife, and a passionate young lady turned on me as though I were some kind of murderous owl, flitting around the world trying to acquit men of their crimes against women.
She isn’t the person who told me something I didn’t know, though. That was a grand Bavarian lady in a beer garden in Passau, a charming old cobbled town on the upper Danube. I sat down at a table some ways away from the oompah band and she leaned across from another table to tell me that all the beers are free today. I thought I must have misheard, because such glorious things do not happen outside of my dreams, but she explained that it was some sort of brauhaus festival and there would be no charge on large cold foaming steins of delicious, heat-beating, dew-bejeweled beer.
“Even the second one?” I asked, my heart racing.
“Even the tenth one!” she declared.
“We’ll see about that!” I roared.
She was a grand, theatrical, magnificent old broad in a low-cut black dress and an extravagant cleavage draped with strings of jewels. She had just come from a funeral. In the early 80s she had been a presenter on Bavarian local television. After her children had grown she wanted to go back to work but show-biz was unwelcoming so she became a tour guide, walking people from the Danube cruise boats around Passau, pointing out the confluence of the rivers and the local church with the gigantic organ.
“That is why I live in Passau! Because I like big organs!” she boomed, and slapped me so hard on the shoulder that I nearly dropped my free beer.But here’s the interesting part: did I know who her very first tourist was? The very first man that she walked around Passau? I did not. I tried to guess. I couldn’t guess.
“It was Neil Armstrong!” she said.
This was very unexpected and interesting. What was Neil Armstrong doing in Passau? He’d been some sort of honoured guest and had given a speech. What was he like? He was very polite and very serious. She had arranged for a special performance of the big organ, and he seemed to enjoy it.
“It’s the biggest church organ in the world, did you know?” she said.
Never mind the organ, I urged her, although every time one of us said “organ”, we both had to stop and chuckle for a bit. I wanted to know more about Neil Armstrong, and that’s when she told me the interesting information.
She said she asked him which foot he used to step first onto the moon. That was a question that hadn’t occurred to me. He was right-handed, but he didn’t step with his right foot, as you might expect. He told her that he kept his right foot on the ladder and poked down tentatively with his left, because he wanted to make sure if anything goes wrong, his strong leg could lift him out of danger.
Before the Eagle landed, no one knew what the moon would be like. There were scientists who were convinced that the lunar surface was all powder or quicksand, that the module would land and simply sink down and be swallowed up. Even when it seemed to settle onto solid ground, there was no guarantee that Neil wouldn’t step off the ladder like an old-fashioned deep-sea diver from the side of a boat and sink down forever with his weighted boots into a sea of tranquil dust.
I know there’s the world of difference between making a judgment and landing on an alien celestial body, but I still like the thought that at the moment of humankind’s boldest and most romantically stirring achievement, when institutions like Nasa had to be fixed and unshaking in their certainty and conviction, there was still space for the individual involved to feel doubt, to question the ground beneath his feet, to be prepared to countenance and accept error. It seems like the human thing to do.
I told this story to the young person who knows that Michael Peterson killed his wife.
“Nasa is racist,” she said firmly. “Instead of going to the moon, that money could have helped disadvantaged communities.”
Maybe she’s right. I don’t know.