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Remembering Neil Armstrong

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Over the weekend, Neil Armstrong, the first human to step foot on the Moon, died at age 82. In reading remembrances of the astronaut, one theme that stands out through nearly all of them is how admired Armstrong was for his honest and good citizenship. Here are some excerpts from different accounts:

James Fallows, writing at The Atlantic:

Before [becoming Neil Armstrong the astronaut,] he had been: a small town Ohio boy; an Eagle Scout; a certified pilot as of age 15; an aerospace engineer; a naval aviator who flew combat missions in Korea; a test pilot who was in the X-15 among many dozens of aircraft types he eventually flew; and a pilot and commander on two Gemini missions.

This was the ideal American self-image–as reflected before him, in the aviation realm, by Charles Lindbergh.

What came afterward, in contrast to Lindbergh’s later years, was a life lived deliberately away from the limelight and with scrupulous attention to avoiding any controversy or indignity that might reflect upon the space program of which he’d played such a crucial part. He went back to Ohio and to academia; he avoided direct or indirect involvement in politics; he was careful about his business engagements; and he seemed always to be aware that he stood for more than himself. I saw people sheepishly ask him for autographs at the Wright Brothers centennial event. He politely declined — as he had for years, after he learned that they were being re-sold by scalpers. I don’t mean to idealize him; I don’t know the details of his life well enough to speak with authority, and I’m sure that like everyone he had his contradictions. But the face and example he presented to the public seemed wholly admirable.

And about that famous strange-sounding sentence: I have always heard that he believed he had said, and in any case that he intended to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” I choose to believe him.

John Wilford, in The New York Times:

After news of Mr. Armstrong’s death was reported, President Obama, in a statement from the White House, said, “Neil was among the greatest of American heroes.”

“And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time,” the president added, “he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”

Charles F. Bolden Jr., the current NASA administrator, said, “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.”

Mr. Bolden also noted that in the years after the moonwalk, Mr. Armstrong “carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all.” The historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Mr. Armstrong for a NASA oral history, described him as “our nation’s most bashful Galahad.” His family called him “a reluctant hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”

Clive Crook, at The Atlantic:

When it came to what NASA accomplished, [my father’s] admiration turned to awe. It makes me chuckle even now to think back to it. This reverence was so unlike him. He wanted me to understand just how difficult a thing it was–and how daring. “I know you think it’s incredibly hard, but it’s so much harder than that.” He followed the engineering as closely as he could and explained a lot of it to me. He persuaded me so well that I secretly decided it couldn’t actually be done. The margins for error were just too small. I was sure something would go wrong and they’d fail. Of course we stayed up all night and watched the video of the first walk on the surface. We were both moved to tears.

Armstrong’s subsequent shunning of the limelight only deepened my father’s regard for him, were that possible. Armstrong–an engineer by training and vocation–was embarrassed to be given so much credit, knowing that it rested on the work of the rest of the NASA team. More than forty years later, the only thing that seems anachronistic about the commander of Apollo 11 is that he had no capacity whatever for self-promotion–which in most fields of endeavor we have made a substitute for achievement, or at any rate a necessary component of success.

Also check out Buzz Aldrin’s statement on Armstrong’s passing, here.