Saturday, August 25, 2012

Excerpt of Neil Armstrong's Commencement Address To USC in 2005

Neil Armstrong hailed from the Midwest originally, but he spent quite a bit of time in Southern California. He transferred to the nearby Edwards Air Force Base, where he worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA's predecessor) as a research pilot. He also completed his master in aerospace engineering from University of Southern California, where I graduated with a BS in Aeronautical Engineering in 1961. I also had the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of the X-15 (which Armstrong flew) at Edwards AFB, during a USC class field trip. It was a very tight fit.

Students of my vintage did not have calculators, cell phones, credit cards, personal computers, Internet or reality TV. Some might say they were very fortunate. At the time of my college graduation, airliners were propelled by propellers. A few military jets existed, and rocket engines were primitive. Had a faculty member at that time suggested preparation for a career in spacecraft operations, he or she would have been ridiculed. The most serious proposals for space flight were found on a Sunday evening television program, “The Wonderful World of Disney.” But within just three years, the Soviet Union launched the first Earth satellite and the space age was born. Within a decade, satellites were being used for a variety of scientific and commercial purposes. Probes had been sent to nearby planets and humans were frequently flying into space. That suggests that you can’t imagine the change and related opportunity that will arise for you in the years ahead. Hopefully, the things you have learned here will help you be ready for them. And you will not stop learning - learning is a lifelong process - and you have a great start.

Custom dictates that a commencement speaker give a word of advice to the new graduates. And I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions merit your attention. The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident. You can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources. What are not easily stolen from you without your cooperation are your principles and your values. They are your most important possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man. Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program for the human character. And what will that future bring? I do not know, but it will be exciting.

The author of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a pilot in World War II, which, unfortunately, he did not survive. Fortunately, his writings did survive, and I will pass along one piece of his advice. In Saint-Exupéry’s “Wisdom of the Sands,” he wrote: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” And so it is. Congratulations and good luck.
Armstrong with the X-15

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