Neil Armstrong embodied all of those pep talks, aimed at us as kids, by a parent, teacher or coach.
“You can achieve anything. The sky’s the limit.”
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong proved those encouraging words true. That day, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, an achievement that, just a few years earlier, seemed beyond impossible.
For that reason, his death Saturday at age 82 tugs at the heartstrings of millions of people worldwide. A piece of youth has passed, at least for folks old enough to remember the Apollo 11 landing. The sights and sounds of that event remain embedded in memories … the picture of Armstrong in his space suit and helmet, standing on the lunar surface … “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” … And, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The latter quotation uttered by Armstrong transcends those of philosophers, writers, generals and statesmen. He delivered that thought, in that unforgettable staccato cadence as he climbed off a ladder of the lunar module and put the first footprint on the moon. Most of us fumble to accurately recite a pithy quote from Twain or Churchill, but Armstrong’s 11 words flow from our memory banks automatically.
In an ironic historical footnote, Armstrong long insisted he had actually said “one small step for a man,” but admitted his ears, like those of the humans back on earth, could not hear the “a” in that famous radio transmission. That discrepancy is fitting, because we may not know Armstrong’s personal story as thoroughly as we think.
Armstrong always appreciated but never became comfortable with the awe and emotional attachment expressed by others for him. In the decades following the moon landing, he consistently avoided the limelight and opportunities to reminisce about the glory of that one small step. Even on milestone anniversaries of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong typically made no comments, and kept about his very private life.
NASA could not have picked a more humble man, especially in the 1960s, an era when astronauts enjoyed rock-star status in the eyes of the public. “A reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job,” his family said in a statement last weekend.
Armstrong saw himself in a far more ordinary light. He once told the National Press Club, “I am, and ever will be, a white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”
Just a guy from small-town Ohio who drew inspiration from the Wright Brothers and Chuck Yeager, and loved to fly. In the midst of their dramatic 21⁄2-hour moonwalk, Armstrong patted Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin on the shoulder and, according to an Orlando Sentinel recap, gushed, “Isn’t this fun?”
Millions of us down here on their home planet thought the same thing as we huddled around TV sets, watching Armstrong and the space program make history, in grainy yet indelible images, and realizing the impossible was no longer so.