Neil Armstrong was a quiet, self-described “nerdy” engineer who became a global hero when as a steely-nerved US pilot he made “one giant leap for mankind” with the first step on the moon.
The modest man who entranced and awed people on Earth died on Saturday of complications arising from cardiovascular procedures.
He was 82.
Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century’s scientific expeditions. His first words after setting foot on the surface are etched in history books and in the memories of those who heard them in a live broadcast.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said.
In those first few moments on the moon, during the climax of a heated space race with the then-Soviet Union, Armstrong stopped in what he said was “a tender moment” and left a patch to commemorate Nasa astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in action.
“It was special and memorable, but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do,” Armstrong told an Australian television interviewer this year.
Armstrong and Edwin “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.
The moonwalk marked America’s victory in the Cold War space race that began on October 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, a satellite that sent shock waves around the world.
An estimated 600 million people – a fifth of the world’s population – watched and listened to the moon landing.
Although he had been a navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for Nasa’s forerunner and an astronaut, 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 February 2000 in one of his rare public appearances. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Armstrong for oral histories for Nasa, said Armstrong fitted every requirement the space agency needed for the first man to walk on the moon, especially because of his engineering skills and the way he handled celebrity by shunning it.
“I think his genius was in his reclusiveness,” said Brinkley. “He was the ultimate hero in an era of corruptible men.”
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 efforts by private companies to develop spaceships.
Nasa chief Charles Bolden recalled Armstrong’s grace and humility on Saturday.
“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,” Bolden said.
Armstrong’s self-effacing manner did not change. When he appeared in Dayton, Ohio, in 2003 to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight, he bounded on to a stage before 10 000 people. He spoke for only a few seconds, did not mention the moon and quickly ducked out of the spotlight.
He later joined former astronaut and Senator John Glenn in laying wreaths on the graves of airplane inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Glenn introduced Armstrong and noted it was 34 years to the day that Armstrong had walked on the moon.
“Thank you, John – 34 years?” Armstrong quipped, as if he hadn’t given it a thought.
At another joint appearance, the two embraced and 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 afterward, Armstrong retreated to the quiet of the classroom and his Ohio farm.
Aldrin said in his book Men from Earth that Armstrong was one of the quietest and most private men he had met.
In the Australian interview, Armstrong acknowledged that “now and then I miss the excitement about being in the cockpit of an airplane and doing new things”.
At the time of the flight’s 40th anniversary, Armstrong again was low-key, telling a gathering that the space race was “the ultimate peaceful competition: USA versus USSR. It did allow both sides to take the high road, with the objectives of science and learning and exploration.”
Glenn described Armstrong as “exceptionally brilliant” with technical matters, but “rather retiring, doesn’t like to be thrust into the limelight much”.
He said Armstrong had had a number of close calls. He recalled how Armstrong had between 15 seconds and 35 seconds of fuel remaining when he landed on the moon.
He said Armstrong’s skill and dedication were “just exemplary”.
Derek Elliott, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s US Air and Space Museum from 1982 to 1992, said the moonwalk probably marked the high point of space exploration.
“That we were able to see it and be a part of it means we are in our own way witnesses to history,” he said in a statement.
“Houston: Tranquillity Base here,” Armstrong radioed after the spacecraft settled on to the moon.
“The Eagle has landed.”
“Roger, Tranquillity,” the Houston staffer radioed back. “We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
The third astronaut on the mission, Michael Collins, circled the moon in the mother ship, Columbia, while Armstrong and Aldrin went to the moon’s surface.
Twelve American astronauts walked on the moon between 1969 and the last moon mission in 1972.
Armstrong was born August 5, 1930, on a farm in Ohio. He took his first aircraft ride at age six and developed a fascination with aviation that led him to build model aeroplanes and carry out experiments in a home-made wind tunnel. He was licensed to fly at 16, before he got his driver’s licence.
Armstrong enrolled at 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 and later completed a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering at 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 – and commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. After the first space docking, he brought the capsule back in an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean when a wildly firing thruster kicked it out of orbit.
Armstrong was back-up commander for the historic Apollo 8 mission at Christmas time in 1968. On that flight, Commander Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders circled the moon 10 times, paving the way for the lunar landing seven months later.
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 Wapakoneta, media and souvenir frenzy was swirling around the home of Armstrong’s parents.
“You couldn’t see the house for the news media,” recalled John Zwez, former manager of the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were given ticker tape parades in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and later made a 22-country world tour.
In 1970, Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at Nasa, but left the following year to lecture in aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
He remained there until 1979 and during that time bought a farm, where he raised cattle and grew maize.
He stayed out of public view, accepting few requests for interviews or speeches.
“He didn’t give interviews, but he wasn’t a strange person or hard to talk to,” said Ron Huston, a fellow lecturer at the University of Cincinnati.
“He just didn't like being a novelty.” – Sapa-AP