For the distant past and forever into the future, only one man can ever lay claim to Neil Armstrong’s title. The first human on another world, the former astronaut's life was defined by one mission, several tense moments, and one iconic quote—and with them, as much glory as he wanted for the rest of his life, which ended unexpectedly at 82 on Saturday.
If it was John F. Kennedy who challenged the nation in 1961, then it was Armstrong who inspired the world eight years later. And that inspiration ran deep. Several decades after Armstrong's famed Apollo 11 mission, my third-grade teacher, Ms. Bronson, hung the astronaut's photo on the wall, telling us in gripping detail about a watershed moment in space history. And it was then that every single one of my classmates wanted to be an astronaut like him. Had we, at 9 years old, known the word “stupefying,” it was probably how we would have described him.
It was only in the following years, and when I became a journalist, when I realized just what Armstrong's accomplishment really was. Sure, he stepped down the ladder first. But that had an element of luck. That could have been any seasoned flight engineer who logged the requisite flying hours and showed calm under pressure. After all, it was by sheer virtue of the flight coordinator's mood back in Houston that Armstrong got to step on the moon before his Apollo 11 colleague Buzz Aldrin, who went second.
Armstrong's lesson came in the years after he returned to Earth. First he took a NASA desk job in Washington. Then, the man with one of the world's most recognizable names went back to school for a master’s in aeronautical engineering at University of Southern California. He took a job teaching his craft at the respectable but quaint University of Cincinnati. When book agents and network news reporters came knocking, he turned them down. He moseyed occasionally around Lebanon, Ohio, where he owned a farm, and asked locals to respect his privacy.
I requested interviews twice with Armstrong in what turned out to be the final years of his life. Both times I was politely told he simply wasn’t interested. He never wanted to be used as a simple quote in a story about space policy or to let a magazine use his image to boost readership. Asked regularly about his feelings when taking that first step, Armstrong would routinely fall back on the same sentiment. “I was certainly aware that this was the culmination of the work of 300,000 to 400,000 people over a decade.”
Perhaps he could have written more stories, spoken to more students, heck, even started a blog for aviation and history enthusiasts.
Ever the skilled pilot, he kept us guessing. Three months ago, Armstrong granted a lengthy sit-down to—who else?—the Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia, a professional trade group. Armstrong spent several hours explaining every detail of his fabled moon landing, which was close to ending in out-of-gas disaster. It was an interview that CNN or NBC would have killed for, and he explained that he simply wanted to tell his story in detail without exploiting it. Graphic designers helped create no-frills visuals to show the moments before Armstrong's lunar touchdown. The footage now, of course, is a relic.
In an era of instant glory and relentless self-promotion, it’s hard to imagine someone like Armstrong existing now. Plenty of people deserve public accolades, but few if any turn them down, trading in the guarantee of fame and immense fortune for privacy and the chance to simply keep doing the work they enjoy.
By any measure, Armstrong should have spoken more about his storied career, how he worked hard and achieved greatly. Perhaps he could have written more stories, spoken to more students, heck, even started a blog for aviation and history enthusiasts. Armstrong's signature alone might have helped boost the economy, if not for his longtime and well-known no-autograph policy (he didn’t like his signature making people money).
But when the Eagle’s captain ascended to his place in the sky Saturday afternoon, Armstrong achieved a feat perhaps even greater than walking on the moon. He showed a nation what quiet humility looks like. He illustrated what the work of a committed nation and trusted teammates can actually achieve.
In the years following the first moon landing, many people liked to claim the whole event may have been fabricated. Certainly it wasn't. But Armstrong's life, and his prominence as an American role model, was no doubt the real deal.