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My one — memorable — question for Neil Armstrong

Late NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong talks with a teenage schoolboy  at the National Science Museum in Haifa.THERE is no doubt that being a photo-journalist is a very privileged occupation. In my years with BBC TV News in London, and earlier with the Daily Express and Daily Mail, I had the opportunity to meet and photograph in the UK and Europe a myriad of interesting personalities.

They included Emperor Hirohito, Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Speer, Margaret Thatcher, Edward Kennedy, Golda Meir, Charles Best (co-discoverer of insulin) and many, many others.

On July 20 1969, I, like most of the world, was glued to the radio or TV to follow the excitement of the first lunar landing.

By the end of the day the name Neil Armstrong would resonate forever and be coupled with such people as Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook, Uri Gagarin and Vasco de Gama.

Little did the world realize the modesty and professionalism of this great astronaut who had changed man’s view of the universe for all time.

A few years had passed and in the meantime I had made aliyah with my family and continued my journalistic activities from Israel. The story was much the same as London; the perspective had of course changed, but I still had the opportunity to meet, interview and photograph many interesting personalities.

I mentioned Charles Best. When I met him in London he was about 70 years old. Nobody in the street would possibly recognize him, few would know his name, but here was a man who, together with Dr. Frederick Banting, was the co-discoverer of insulin.

I felt extreme honor to be able to spend about a half an hour with a man who had contributed to the saving of an uncountable numbers of lives.

Best was unassuming, modest, like Neil Armstrong. He had been honored by universities all over the world, including The Hebrew University.

The short meeting left an indelible impression on me, particularly as one man could make such a difference to so many. For me Charles Best and Neil Armstrong represented the most excellent of qualities in people for their dignity and perseverance.

IN July, 2007, I heard that Neil Armstrong was coming to Israel at the invitation of an Israeli investment company. It was well known that Armstrong rarely gave interviews or public appearances. But to me Armstrong, like Charles Best, was special.

I heard that the Apollo 11 commander was going to visit the National Science Museum in Haifa and answer questions from young children about his experiences in space. I could not resist the opportunity to take pictures of him, and even try and ask him a question. Ever the optimist I drove up to Haifa.

For about an hour children, ages eight to 13, were called up to a low podium and stood beside Armstrong and read their questions in Hebrew. The questions were translated into English and Armstrong’s replies were then translated back into Hebrew.

Several Arabic speaking Israeli children from Nazareth also had the opportunity to question Armstrong and their questions were translated into English and Hebrew.

It was clear that Neil Armstrong was enjoying the experience with the children. Everybody in the museum was obviously in awe of Armstrong, as it was not everyday that one heard what it was like to be the first man on the moon.

Armstrong’s death this week, five years after his visit to Israel, brought to mind the advice he shared with Israeli youngsters who told him they wanted to be astronauts one day:

“That requires getting a very good education, particularly in the fields of science and mathematics.”

Asked by a Haifa youngster whether he would take a second chance to go back to the moon today, Armstrong jumped to his feet and said, “Of course,” and embracing the questioner, a teenage boy, asked if he would like to come along too?

The organizers of the event went out of their way to make sure that everybody understood that apart from the questions from the children, there would be no other questions allowed. Why? I never understood.

However as he left the crowded hall Neil Armstrong walked past me and gave me the opportunity to ask him one short question concerning his moon mission which always puzzled me. “When you landed on the moon and made your immortal statement, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ did you compose that yourself, or was it composed by NASA?”

“Yes, you have to blame me,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

It was not my longest interview, but for me it ranks as one of life’s special experiences, like the half hour spent with Charles Best. These were unique individuals who changed forever the way we live and our perspectives.

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