A reluctant hero who made a giant leap

Neil Armstrong made “one giant leap for mankind” with a small step onto the moon.

He commanded the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon on Jul 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century’s scientific expeditions and becoming the first man to walk on the moon.

His first words after the feat are etched in history books and the memories of the spellbound millions who heard them in a live broadcast.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said. He insisted later that he had said ‘a’ before man, but said he, too, couldn’t hear it in the version that went to the world.

Armstrong, a regular visitor to Ireland who had bypass surgery earlier this month, died on Saturday aged 82 from what his family said were complications of heart procedures.

He was “a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job”, his family said in a statement.

The moonwalk marked America’s victory in the Cold War space race that began on Oct 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1. The accomplishment fulfilled a commitment president John F Kennedy made for the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of 1960s.

Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent nearly three hours walking on the lunar surface, collecting samples, conducting experiments, and taking photographs.

“The sights were simply magnificent, beyond any visual experience that I had ever been exposed to,” Armstrong once said.

Aldrin said he and Armstrong were not prone to free exchanges of sentiment.

“But there was that moment on the moon, a brief moment, in which we sort of looked at each other and slapped each other on the shoulder... and said, ‘We made it. Good show,’ or something like that,” Aldrin said.

In those first few moments on the moon, Armstrong stopped in what he called “a tender moment” and left a patch to commemorate Nasa astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in action.

Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for Nasa’s forerunner, and an astronaut, the modest Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space programme. “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in 2000.

“And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”

Fellow Ohioan and astronaut John Glenn, one of Armstrong’s closest friends, recalled how Armstrong was on low fuel when he finally brought the lunar module Eagle down on the Sea of Tranquility. “That showed a dedication to what he was doing that was admirable,” Glenn said.

A man who kept away from cameras, Armstrong went public in 2010 with his concerns about President Barack Obama’s space policy that shifted attention away from a return to the moon and emphasised private companies developing spaceships. He testified before congress, and in an email to AP, Armstrong said that he had “substantial reservations”.

Armstrong was among the greatest of American heroes, Obama said in a statement. “When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They 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,” Obama said.

Nasa administrator Charles Bolden recalled Armstrong’s grace and humility. “As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own.”

Armstrong’s modesty and self-effacing manner never faded. When he appeared in Dayton in 2003 to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight, he bounded onto a stage before a packed baseball stadium. But he spoke for only a few seconds, did not mention the moon, and quickly ducked out of the spotlight.

He later joined Glenn, by then a senator, to lay wreaths on the graves of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Glenn introduced Armstrong and noted that day was the 34th anniversary of his moonwalk. “Thank you, John. Thirty-four years?” Armstrong quipped, as if he hadn’t given it a thought.

At another joint appearance, Glenn commented: “To this day, he’s the one person on earth I’m truly, truly envious of.”

Armstrong’s moonwalk capped a series of accomplishments that included piloting the X-15 rocket plane and making the first space docking during the Gemini 8 mission, which included a successful emergency splashdown.

In the years that followed, Armstrong retreated to the quiet of the classroom and his south-western Ohio farm. In an Australian interview earlier this year, Armstrong acknowledged that “now and then I miss the excitement about being in the cockpit of an airplane and doing new things”.

Glenn, who went through jungle training in Panama with Armstrong as part of the astronaut programme, described him as “exceptionally brilliant” with technical matters but “rather retiring, doesn’t like to be thrust into the limelight much”.

Armstrong was born on Aug 5, 1930, on a farm near Wapakoneta in western Ohio. He took his first airplane ride at age 6 and developed a fascination with aviation. As a boy, he worked at a pharmacy and took flying lessons. He was licensed to fly at 16, before he got his driver’s licence.

Armstrong enrolled in Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering but was called to duty with the US navy in 1949 and flew 78 combat missions in Korea.

After the war, Armstrong finished his degree from Purdue and later earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. He became a test pilot with what evolved into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, flying more than 200 kinds of aircraft from gliders to jets.

Armstrong was accepted into Nasa’s second astronaut class in 1962 — the first, including Glenn, was chosen in 1959.

In 1970, Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at Nasa but left the following year to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

He remained there until 1979 and during that time bought a 310-acre farm near Lebanon, where he raised cattle and corn. He stayed out of public view, accepting few requests for interviews or speeches.

Armstrong married Carol Knight in 1999, and the couple lived in Indian Hill, a Cincinnati suburb. He had two adult sons from a previous marriage.

For anybody who wanted to remember him, his family’s statement made a simple request: “Honour his example of service, accomplishment, and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

High life

* Armstrong grew up in Ohio with a strong interest in flight and earned his pilot’s license while still a boy.

* After flying combat missions in the Korean War, he became a test pilot and joined Nasa’s astronaut programme in 1962.

* Armstrong’s pulse was measured at 150 beats per minute as he guided the lunar lander to the moon’s surface, Nasa said. Asked about his experience on the moon, he told CBS: “It’s an interesting place to be. I recommend it.”

* A crater on the moon is named after Armstrong. It is located about 30 miles from the site of the landing.

* Armstrong took a Nasa desk job after the Apollo 11 mission, becoming deputy associate administrator for aeronautics in the office of advanced research and technology. A year later he became a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

* In 2005 Armstrong was upset to learn that his barber had sold clippings of his hair to a collector for $3,000 (€2,400). The man who bought the hair refused to return it, saying he was adding it to his collection of locks from Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein.

* Despite his taciturn nature, Armstrong once appeared in a television commercial for US car- maker Chrysler. He said he made the ad because of Chrysler’s engineering history and his desire to help the company out of financial troubles.


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