Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 astronaut who died Saturday at 82, said he did not want to live his life as an icon, remembered only for that electric night in 1969 when he and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.
But when you have done what he did -- stepped out, alone, onto another world while half a billion Earthlings watched your television transmission -- the world recalls. Armstrong's moonwalk is one of those events that brought the world together; most people who are old enough to have seen it can tell you exactly where they were when it happened.
"His one small step will inspire generations to come," said space shuttle astronaut Nicole Stott on Twitter. She quoted Armstrong from a 1994 speech: "There are places to go beyond belief."
"No other act of human exploration ever laid a plaque saying, 'We came in peace for all mankind,"" tweeted Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist.
President Obama -- whom Armstrong criticized two years ago for cutting NASA's exploration plans -- was nevertheless effusive: "Neil's spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown -- including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space. That legacy will endure -- sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step."
"Neil Armstrong today takes his place in the hall of heroes," said Mitt Romney. "The moon will miss its first son of earth."
Armstrong would doubtless have been uncomfortable with all the tributes. People who knew him said he was not a recluse, but he was a private man who quickly deflected credit to others. He described himself, more than once, as a "nerdy engineer." He often protested that while he and Aldrin made the first lunar landing, they merely piloted a mission made possible by thousands of others.
But after his death was announced, the words kept coming.
This from Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who once made a shuttle flight: "Neil Armstrong understood that we should reach beyond the stars. His 'one giant leap for mankind' was taken by a giant of a man."
And there was this from Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee: "He exemplified all that is great about mankind, and he will forever be revered as a true American hero."
In his later years, Armstrong publicly complained about Washington politics. He said the space program had become a "shuttlecock" in the budget battles between the White House and Congress, which could not agree on its direction or how much America could afford to spend on it.
"NASA has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve," said Armstrong in an interview in Australia this spring. "It's sad that we are turning the program in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people. And that's a major concern to me."
His family, in their statement announcing that he had died, asked people to remember his humility.
"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request," they said. "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."
- Science, Social Science, & Humanities
- Neil Armstrong
- Buzz Aldrin