Neil Armstrong, the first of 12 Americans to set foot on the Moon died August 25, 2012. He was 82 years old. In recent days, Armstrong, arguably our most revered astronaut underwent coronary heart surgery to relieve blockage in his arteries. He never truly had a chance to recover and died 18 days after surgery.
Besides accomplishing what at one time was believed to be an impossible achievement by walking on the moon, Armstrong lived a humble hero’s life. He declined every political job offer that his space career would have ordinarily given him an advantaged opportunity to participate in. And there’s an interesting story that reveals the heart and quality of his personality that interestingly connects the astronaut to President George Washington. As the story goes, Armstrong met his second wife at a golf tournament where they were seated together at a breakfast table. At the time she said very little to him; but two weeks later she received a call from him asking what she was doing. Carol Knight replied that she was cutting down a cherry tree; 35 minutes later Armstrong was at her house to help out. While not exactly the perennial fable surrounding President Washington, it’s still an interesting comparison to one of America’s founding fathers.
“Neil Armstrong was a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job,” his family said. “He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. … He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits.”
As commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Mr. Armstrong, with one short sentence on July 20, 1969, became a hero to the millions of people watching back on earth.
The words he spoke upon stepping onto the lunar surface: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — were beamed live into homes around the world, captivating viewers and immediately and indelibly becoming a symbol of America’s resolve and ingenuity in its race against the Soviet Union for supremacy in space.
It was a singular achievement for humanity and the culmination of a goal that President John F. Kennedy had set eight years earlier with his bold statement: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
Twenty minutes later his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, joined him, and the world watched as the men spent the next two hours bounding around in the moon’s light gravity, taking rock samples, setting up experiments, and taking now-iconic photographs. Their crewmate, Michael Collins, orbited overhead in the Apollo 11 command ship, Columbia.
“Neil and I trained together as technical partners but were also good friends who will always be connected through our participation in the mission of Apollo 11,” said Aldrin today in a statement. “Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us. I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew.”
“Neil was among the greatest of American heroes — not just of his time, but of all time,” it said. Armstrong and his crewmates “set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable — that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden — himself a former space shuttle astronaut — joined in the tributes. With the space shuttles retired, NASA does not currently have a way to launch astronauts on its own, but it is working on a new spacecraft for astronauts, and, this month, landed the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars.
“Besides being one of America’s greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all,” said Bolden. “As we enter this next era of space exploration, we do so standing on the shoulders of Neil Armstrong.”
Armstrong’s family, in a statement, praised him as a “loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.”
Neil Alden Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, near Wapakoneta, Ohio, and he would maintain a connection with his home state his entire life.
In 1947, Mr. Armstrong began studying aeronautical engineering at Purdue University on a Navy scholarship, according to his official biography. His studies were interrupted in 1949 when he was called to serve in the Korean War, where he flew 78 combat missions. He left the service in 1952, and returned to college to finish his degree. He later earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.
In 1955, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and worked as an engineer, test pilot and administrator. As a test pilot, he flew some of the most innovative and dangerous aircraft ever developed, more than 200 different models. Perhaps the best known of these was the X-15, which reached speeds of 4,000 m.p.h., according to his biography on the NASA Web site.
He became an astronaut in 1962 and was the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, when he performed the first successful docking of two vehicles in space.
Three year later, Mr. Armstrong was 38 years old when he piloted the lunar module to the surface of the moon, a delicate operation that required precise calculations to ensure that the vehicle landed unscathed.
Along with his co-pilot, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. of the Air Force, the pair landed in a rock-strewn plain near the southwestern shore of the Sea of Tranquillity. The third astronaut on the mission, Michael Collins, remained in the command ship circling the moon.
The world breathed a collective sigh when Mr. Armstrong was heard telling mission control room, “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
“Roger, Tranquillity,” mission control replied. “We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
About six and a half hours after landing, Mr. Armstrong opened the hatch on the four-legged lunar module, slowly made his way down the ladder and planted the first human footprint on the lunar crust. A crater near the site of the landing was later named in his honor.
After leaving the space program, Mr. Armstrong was careful to do nothing to tarnish that image or achievement. Though he traveled and gave speeches — like in October 2007,when he dedicated the new Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at Purdue — he rarely gave interviews and avoided the spotlight.
He later found success in both business and academia.
Mr. Armstrong married Carol Knight in 1994, and the couple lived in Indian Hill, a Cincinnati suburb. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Eric and Mark, from his first marriage to Janet Shearon. He also had a daughter with Ms. Shearon in 1959, but the girl, Karen, died of an inoperable brain tumor in 1962.
A few personal details emerged: He suffered a minor heart attack in 1991. His wife Jan divorced him in 1994 and he soon married Carol Knight. In 2005 his authorized biographer, James R. Hansen, wrote, “Neil Armstrong today seems to be a very happy man — perhaps happier than at any other time in his life.”
Almost as soon as the news of his death was announced, there was an outpouring of well wishes and fond memorials on Web sites and social media, a reflection of the extraordinary public acclaim that came to a very private man.
“As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life,” his family said. “While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”
If there was ever a person that appeared to carry the heart, soul and appreciation of the freedoms that so accurately frame the American Dream, Neil Armstrong was that man.
One amazing fact about Neil Armstrong that places him in the hall of fame of human beings; no one living can verify if he was a democrat or republican. If I were to take my best guess, what political party do you think I would say his values best reflected.
For this hero amongst heroes, I would guess that Neil Armstrong was simply an American; not left nor right, just an American. And that’s a big reason why his memory will echo throughout eternity.