Despite Moonwalk Fame, Neil Armstrong a ‘Reluctant American Hero’
SEATTLE — Neil Armstrong may be one of the most famous people who ever lived, but he was a modest man who shied away from the spotlight, those who knew the late astronaut say.
Armstrong died Aug. 25 at age 82 of complications from a recent cardiac bypass operation. He shot to international fame July 20, 1969, when he became the first person to set foot on the Moon.
But the commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, and the first person ever to walk on the surface of another world, did not glory in his iconic moment, viewing it instead as all in a day’s work, family members said.
“Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend,” the Armstrong family said in a statement announcing his death. “Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”
Keeping a low profile
As his boot pressed into the gray lunar dirt 43 years ago, Armstrong uttered perhaps the 20th century’s most famous line: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” And by all accounts he really meant it, experts say.
“What he was partaking in was only about furthering the human adventure, furthering what it meant to be human,” space history expert Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE.com, said. “When he said that he went to the Moon for all mankind, and that it was a giant leap for all mankind, it really was.”
Apollo 11 was Armstrong’s last trip to space, and he left NASA in 1971 to become a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He kept a low enough profile after his astronaut days that some observers branded him a recluse — an unfair characterization, Pearlman said.
“That wasn’t true,” Pearlman said, citing Armstrong’s teaching stint at Cincinnati and numerous public appearances over the years. “What he didn’t do was go Hollywood. He didn’t seek the spotlight; he didn’t walk down the red carpet.”
Armstrong’s approach contrasted greatly with that taken by his fellow Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.
“We were fortunate to have both represented on the same mission,” Pearlman said. “We’ve got the one who was OK with having Buzz Lightyear named after him, and action figures made, and a television movie of his life and all the rest. And with Neil, we have someone who even objected to Hallmark putting his name on an ornament, who didn’t want anything to do with the pop culture world.”
Armstrong left the University of Cincinnati in 1979 and served on a number of corporate boards, including that of Imaginova, the former parent company of Space.com and Space News.
“Once you got over the fact that you were sitting next to one of the most famous people in the world, you realized he was there to contribute as a business man,” said Dan Stone, who ran Imaginova from 2002 to 2008.
Concerned for NASA’s future
Uncharacteristically, Armstrong waded into the public eye in 2010, voicing his strong objection to President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s Moon-oriented Constellation program. He also publicly aired his concerns about the agency’s plan to rely on U.S. private spaceships as astronaut taxis in the wake of the space shuttle’s retirement.
“We will have no American access to, and return from, low Earth orbit and the international space station for an unpredictable length of time in the future,” Armstrong testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in September 2011.
“For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable,” he added.
Armstrong’s willingness to speak out about NASA’s future in the last two years of his life shows how much he cared about the agency and about humanity’s future in space, Pearlman said.
Because of his giant leap in 1969, Armstrong is a large part of that future, however it takes shape. The astronaut eventually made some degree of peace with his outsize status, said space policy expert and George Washington University professor emeritus John Logsdon, who crossed paths with Armstrong many times in the past four decades.
“Although he was never comfortable with his status as an icon because of Apollo 11, as he got older he accepted that reality and came to enjoy sharing his experience of landing on the moon with all who would listen,” Logsdon said in an email.