Neil Armstrong: A giant leap for modesty

The humility of Neil Armstrong after his moonwalk is a model for a balanced approach to giving credit for great achievements.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong turns towards the lunar module soon after he became the first man to set foot on the moon in July, 1969. He died at age 82 last Saturday.

In this age of celebrity obsession, it is rare for heroic figures to be honored for their humility. Yet the family of Neil Armstrong asked after his death last week that the former astronaut be remembered for his modesty as much as for his accomplishment in landing the Eagle spacecraft on the moon and being the first person to walk on another celestial body.

His famous reluctance to revel in the limelight has set an important marker in a wider debate about the source of all great achievement, or when a person deserves credit for a great deed, discovery, invention, or creative work.

Apple, for example, won a $1 billion suit last week against Samsung for the stealing of patented ideas used in the iPhone. President Obama recently told entrepreneurs that they “didn’t build” their businesses without the help of government. And almost monthly in the publishing industry, another case of an author plagiarizing a copyrighted work is exposed.

With these kinds of concerns about the origins of useful ideas or acts, Mr. Armstrong’s self-effacing modesty remains instructive.

He said the moon landing in July 1969 was not so much his doing as simply an “achievement that a third of a million people had been working for a decade to accomplish.” All the scientists, engineers, and others connected to space exploration are the unsung heroes of historic feats in space. His role was significant but perhaps less important than, say, the designing of the Saturn rocket.

Armstrong’s modesty echoes that of Sir Issac Newton, who discovered calculus and the laws of gravitation and later wrote to his rival, Robert Hooke: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Breakthroughs in thought or action are most often built on the past achievements of others. But society is benefited by giving credit and allowing a monopoly privilege to an idea in order to serve a public purpose: encouraging further breakthroughs.

Today’s competition for new ideas in the global economy has become so fierce that it severely challenges the intellectual property system that first arose in the 18th century. A new balance is needed between a right to one’s originality and the free flow of ideas that spurs originality.

Despite Armstrong’s image as a rugged individual who mastered spaceflight, he argued for collaboration in modern-day achievements. His boyhood hero was Charles Lindbergh, another heroic icon of aeronautics; but by the 1960s, science and technology had become too complex to sustain the idea of great solo acts. Even Steve Jobs said his greatest achievement would be leaving behind a team at Apple that can keep coming up with more cool designs.

The very nature of ideas is that they are universal enough for anyone to discover and, once known, can be shared for the benefit of all. Society must decide how much to grant credit or lock in ownership of ideas in order to encourage more progress.

The one time that Armstrong spoke out forcefully after his moon landing was to decry budget cuts to the space program. He spoke of “our investment” in space exploration. It was as if he once again was noting his own “small step” in reaching the moon while also paying tribute to the larger cause, a “giant leap for mankind.”

Those historic words were well chosen by a man who lived them.

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