Armstrong Wasn't Columbus

By Seth Shostak

Neil ArmstrongNeil Armstrong was no Christopher Columbus.

In most respects, he was better. Unlike the famous fifteenth century seafarer, Armstrong knew where he landed. He also spent his time in public service, not in jail, and his passing was marked by world-wide encomiums. He ended his days as a celebrated explorer rather than a royal inconvenience.

Exploration was once a dirty, nasty and dangerous business. Consider some of Columbus' contemporaries, headliners in the early years of the Age of Discovery. Ferdinand Magellan's globe-girdling venture killed a large number of people, including the bulk of his crew and countless natives who got in the way. Magellan himself was cut down in an ill-conceived battle he instigated with a native chief in the Philippines. One, and only one of his ships hobbled back to Spain.

Then there was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who in 1513 became the first European to see the Pacific from its eastern shores. Balboa was more efficient at exterminating Panamanian natives than your average tropical disease. In the end, he was decapitated by axe for insubordination.

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