Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who marked an epochal achievement in exploration with “one small step” from the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969, becoming the first person to walk on the moon, died Saturday at 82.
His family announced the death in a statement but did not say where he died. They attributed it to “complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.”
A taciturn engineer and test pilot who was never at ease with his fame, Armstrong was among the most heroized Americans of the 1960s Cold War space race.
Twelve years after the Soviet Sputnik satellite reached space first, deeply alarming U.S. officials, and after President John F. Kennedy in 1961 declared it a national priority to land an American on the moon “before this decade is out,” Armstrong, a former Navy fighter pilot, commanded the NASA crew that finished the job.
His trip to the moon – particularly the hair-raising final descent from lunar orbit to the treacherous surface – was history’s boldest feat of aviation. Yet what the experience meant to him, what he thought of it all on an emotional level, he mostly kept to himself.
Like his boyhood idol, transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh, Armstrong learned how uncomfortable the intrusion of global acclaim can be. And just as Lindbergh had done, he eventually shied from the public and avoided the popular media.
The perilous 195-hour journey that defined Armstrong’s place in history – from the liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, to the capsule’s splashdown in the Pacific eight days later – riveted the world’s attention, transcending cultural, political and generational divides in an era of profound social tumult and change in the United States.
As Armstrong, a civilian, and his crewmates, Air Force pilots Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, hurtled through space, television viewers around the globe witnessed a drama of spellbinding technology and daring.
At center stage, cool and focused, was a pragmatic, 38-year-old astronaut who would let social critics and spiritual wise men dither over the larger meaning of his voyage. When Armstrong occasionally spoke publicly about the mission in later decades, he usually did so dryly, his recollections mainly operational.
“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” he said at a millennial gathering honoring the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. Unlike Aldrin and Collins, Armstrong never published a memoir.
Landing the LM
After flying experimental rocket planes in the 1950s at Edwards Air Force Base in California – the high-desert realm of daredevil test pilots later celebrated in author Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” – Armstrong was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1962 and became the first U.S. civilian to be blasted into space.
In 1966, during his only space flight other than Apollo 11, a life-threatening malfunction of his Gemini 8 vehicle caused the craft to tumble out of control in Earth orbit. It was the nation’s first potentially fatal crisis in space, prompting Armstrong and his crewmate, David Scott, to abort their mission and carry out NASA’s first emergency re-entry.
His skill and composure were put to no greater test, though, than in the anxious minutes starting at 4:05 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, July 20, 1969. That was when the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin, having separated from the Apollo 11 capsule, began its hazardous, 9-mile final descent to the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.
The lunar module, or LM (pronounced lem), was dubbed “Eagle.” Its 1969 computer, overtaxed during the descent and flashing alarm lights as it fell behind on its work, guided the spider-like craft most of the way to the surface.
In the last few thousand feet, however, Armstrong, looking out a window, saw that the computer had piloted Eagle beyond its targeted landing spot. The craft was headed for a massive crater surrounded by boulders as big as cars.
Armstrong, as planned, took manual control of the LM at 500 feet. Standing in the cramped cockpit, piloting with a control stick and toggle switch, he maneuvered past the crater while scanning the rugged moonscape for a place to safely put down.
Although the world remembers him best for walking on the moon, Armstrong recalled his time on the surface as anticlimactic, “something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable.” Flying the LM was “by far the most difficult and challenging part” of the mission, he told a group of youngsters in a 2007 email exchange.
“Pilots take no particular joy in walking,” he once remarked. “Pilots like flying.”
1/2 hours later, Mr. Armstrong, soon to be followed by Aldrin, climbed down the ladder outside the LM’s hatch as a television camera mounted on the craft transmitted his shadowy, black-and-white image to hundreds of millions of viewers.
‘One small step for (a) man’
As for his famous statement upon stepping off the ladder, Armstrong said he didn’t dwell on it much beforehand, that the idea came to him only after the landing.
He would always maintain that he had planned to say “a man.” Whether the “a” was lost in transmission or Armstrong misspoke has never been fully resolved. As his boots touched the lunar surface at 10:56:15 p.m. Eastern time, the world heard: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Ever the precise engineer, Armstrong later said that if it were up to him, history would record his immortal words with an “a” inserted in parenthesis.
Channeling his grief
Neil Alden Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, outside the little farming town of Wapakoneta in western Ohio. From the morning in 1936 when his father, an auditor of county records, let him skip Sunday school so the two could go aloft in a barnstorming Ford Trimotor plane near their home, the boy was hooked on aviation.
He got his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday, before he was legally old enough to go solo in an automobile.
After a few semesters at Purdue University, he left for Navy flight training in 1949. He flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War and was shot down once before his tour of duty ended and he went back to Purdue.
After earning an aeronautical engineering degree in 1955, he joined NASA’s forerunner, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and was soon pushing the boundaries of aviation in missile-like research planes.
In 1959, at the beginning of the Mercury project, which would soon blast the first American into space, NASA chose its storied “original seven” astronauts from the ranks of active-duty military fliers. Armstrong, who was less than enthusiastic about the program, remained at Edwards as a civilian test pilot.
Then, in 1962, his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, died of brain cancer.
Not long after Karen’s death, when NASA recruited its second group of astronauts, about 250 test pilots applied, and Armstrong was among the nine who made the cut. Most took part in the Earth-orbiting Gemini missions of the mid-1960s, refining flight procedures that would be needed later in the moon-bound Apollo program.
Warding off celebrity
After weeks of hoopla surrounding Apollo 11’s return, Armstrong worked in NASA management for two years, then joined the University of Cincinnati’s engineering faculty.
“We were not naive, but we could not have guessed what the volume and intensity of public interest would turn out to be,” he said of his worldwide celebrity.
Over the ensuing decades, Armstrong, a solitary figure, warded off reporters’ efforts to penetrate his privacy until most gave up or lost interest. Unhappy with faculty unionism, he resigned from the university in 1979 and spent the rest of his working life in business.
His 38-year marriage to the former Janet Shearon ended in divorce in 1994. Later that year, he married Carol Knight, a widowed mother of two teenagers. Besides his wife, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Eric and Mark; two stepchildren; a brother; a sister; and 10 grandchildren.
“Looking back, we were really very privileged to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself, and what he might become, and where he might go,” Armstrong said in a 2001 NASA oral history project. “So I’m very thankful.”