Thank You, Neil Armstrong

The first man to set foot on the moon inspired Jim Montgomery to pursue a career in space exploration. Now, weeks after he helped to successfully land Curiosity on Mars, the NASA engineer pays tribute to his hero.

08.28.12 4:18 PM ET

Neil Armstrong will always be remembered as the man who inspired a generation of kids to reach for the stars. I am one of those kids, a child of the Apollo era. I was 5 years old when he took that small step for all of us back on Earth and profoundly changed the course of my life.

Growing up in the small town of South Haven, Mich., the Apollo moon missions captured my young imagination and, like so many children, inspired me to pursue a career in space exploration. Out of 7 billion people on this planet, I am one of the fortunate few who gets to explore the wider universe, and I owe this privilege largely to Armstrong.

Today, I work as an engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and earlier this month helped to land the interplanetary rover Curiosity on Mars. I’m now part of the team that operates her on the planet’s surface, and was doing so when I heard the news that Armstrong passed away. It will forever be my John F. Kennedy moment, a “where were you when” event.

As many have pointed out over the past few days, one of Armstrong’s most striking traits was his modesty; his total devotion to something greater than ourselves and his talent for directing attention away from himself and toward his team. I believe that this spirit of teamwork is something encoded into the DNA of those who work in space exploration, set by Armstrong’s example in the earliest days of the space program. Successfully landing Curiosity on Mars was a worldwide team effort, binding us all together as humans engaged in expanding our knowledge of the universe.

For the remainder of my life, I will always think of Armstrong when I look at the moon. But instead of feeling sad that he is no longer here with us on Earth, I will try to do as the Armstrong family suggested in their statement about his death: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor 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.”

I can think of no more fitting tribute to Armstrong than that. When I was driving home from the space laboratory last night, the moon was up. I looked at it and thought back to that magical time and great adventure that Armstrong took us on several decades ago. I smiled back (and admittedly teared up), and gave him that wink.

I am convinced that hundreds and even thousands of years from now, long after we have become a space-faring civilization, children beyond Earth's orbit will be reading about our era. One of the few individuals they will read about will be Armstrong, the first representative from our species to set foot on another planet, forever changing our place in the universe. My hope is that, in some small way, we on the Curiosity team will help to inspire the next generation of kids the way he inspired me.

Never meeting Armstrong is one of my great disappointments. I would have liked to shake the hand of the man who changed my life with his single step, looked him in the eyes, and simply say “Thank you.” I can't say it to him now, but I can say it here. Thank you, Neil.