If history or social studies teachers in American high schools had asked their students Friday to identify Neil Armstrong, we’d guess more would have said he was a famous cyclist than would have identified him correctly. Others simply wouldn’t have had a clue, though some would have known.
If asked the same question today, those who read a paper or watch the TV news or even check news websites would know that Neil Armstrong was the first American — indeed, the first human being — to walk on the moon.
A retired Naval pilot and astronaut, he died Saturday at age 82.
To Americans of an older generation, Neil Armstrong was and remains a larger-than-life individual. Millions of Americans watched as Apollo 11 lifted off in July 1969 headed for the moon. And hundreds of millions worldwide watched a few days later on July 20 on grainy black-and-white television as he descended from the Eagle and stepped foot on the moon. His words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” became instantly famous. Cmdr. Armstrong, along with Air Force Col. Buzz Aldrin, who became a trivia highlight as the second person to walk on the moon, had the unprecedented experience and great joy of spending about three hours on the moon’s surface.
Cmdr. Armstrong wasn’t America’s only hero back then. All of the astronauts, particularly Alan Shepard and John Glenn, who earlier in the decade in tiny spacecraft became the first American in space and the first to orbit the Earth, respectively, were heroes. But Cmdr. Armstrong became first among equals when he took the steps that culminated the great national journey envisioned by President John F. Kennedy in May 1961 of “before the decade is out… landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
And during a time when Americans believed they could do just about anything they set out to do, they accomplished that goal in the person of Neil Armstrong.
Unlike many of today’s celebrities, Cmdr. Armstrong didn’t milk his notoriety for all it was worth. He was a military officer and a quiet hero long before he joined NASA, having flown dozens of combat missions during the Korean War. True to form, he remained productive after leaving NASA but never felt compelled to trade on his fame. That only made him more admirable.
We could do with more individuals like Cmdr. Armstrong today.