Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who marked an epochal achievement in exploration with “one small step” from the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969, becoming the first person to walk on the moon, died Aug. 25 in the Cincinnati area. He was 82.
His family announced the death in a statement and attributed it to “complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.”
A taciturn engineer and test pilot who was never at ease with his fame, Mr. Armstrong was among the most heroized Americans of the 1960s Cold War space race. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he is famous for saying as he stepped on the moon, an indelible quotation beamed to a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions.
Twelve years after the Soviet satellite Sputnik reached space first, deeply alarming U.S. officials, and after President John F. Kennedy in 1961 declared it a national priority to land an American on the moon “before this decade is out,” Mr. Armstrong, a former Navy fighter pilot, commanded the NASA crew that finished the job.
His trip to the moon — particularly the hair-raising final descent from lunar orbit to the treacherous surface — was history’s boldest feat of aviation. Yet what the experience meant to him, what he thought of it all on an emotional level, he mostly kept to himself.
Like his boyhood idol, transatlantic aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Mr. Armstrong learned how uncomfortable the intrusion of global acclaim can be. And just as Lindbergh had done, he eventually shied away from the public and avoided the popular media.
In time, he became almost mythical.
Mr. Armstrong was “exceedingly circumspect” from a young age, and the glare of international attention “just deepened a personality trait that he already had in spades,” said his authorized biographer, James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian.
In an interview, Hansen, author of “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” cited another “special sensitivity” that made the first man on the moon a stranger on Earth.
“I think Neil knew that this glorious thing he helped achieve for the country back in the summer of 1969 — glorious for the entire planet, really — would inexorably be diminished by the blatant commercialism of the modern world,” Hansen said.
“And I think it’s a nobility of his character that he just would not take part in that.”
A love of flying
The perilous, 195-hour journey that defined Mr. Armstrong’s place in history — from the liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, to the capsule’s splashdown in the Pacific eight days later — riveted the world’s attention, transcending cultural, political and generational divides in an era of profound social tumult and change in the United States.
As Mr. Armstrong, a civilian, and his crewmates, Air Force pilots Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, hurtled through space, television viewers around the globe witnessed a drama of spellbinding technology and daring. About a half-billion people listened to the climactic landing and watched a flickering video feed of the moonwalk.
At center stage, cool and focused, was a pragmatic, 38-year-old astronaut who would let social critics and spiritual wise men dither over the larger meaning of his voyage. When Mr. Armstrong occasionally spoke publicly about the mission in later decades, he usually did so dryly, his recollections mainly operational.
“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” he said at a millennial gathering honoring the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. Unlike Aldrin and Collins, Mr. Armstrong never published a memoir.
After flying experimental rocket planes in the 1950s at Edwards Air Force Base in California — the high-desert realm of daredevil test pilots later celebrated in author Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” — Mr. Armstrong was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1962 and became the first U.S. civilian to be blasted into space.
In 1966, during his only spaceflight other than Apollo 11, a life-threatening malfunction of his Gemini 8 vehicle caused the craft to tumble out of control in Earth orbit. It was the nation’s first potentially fatal crisis in space, prompting Mr. Armstrong and his crewmate to abort their mission and carry out NASA’s first emergency reentry.
His skill and composure were put to no greater test, though, than in the anxious minutes starting at 4:05 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, July 20, 1969. That was when the lunar module carrying Mr. Armstrong and Aldrin, having separated from the Apollo 11 capsule, began its hazardous, nine-mile final descent to the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.
Collins, waiting in lunar orbit, could only hope that the two would make it back.