Do you know me?” That was the unforgettable phrase that opened a series of classic American Express commercials in the 1970s. In them, people with well-known names but whose faces were not so memorable pitched how that charge card gave them instant “star power.” I don’t know if Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on another body in the solar system, had an American Express card, but certainly he fit the profile. His name is arguably one of the most well-known in the world — it will still be in general history textbooks 500 years from now — but he was not identifiable by sight except to a few.
That’s how he wanted it. Once in 2006 I accompanied Armstrong to the Udvar-Hazy Center, the National Air and Space Museum’s facility near Dulles International Airport in Virginia, to help acquaint him with aircraft on display. Walking around the public space, which was filled with tourists and school groups, no one recognized him until a visitor wearing a Vietnam-era Navy carrier baseball cap walked over, introduced himself and thanked Armstrong for his service to the United States. He was well versed in Armstrong’s role as an iconic astronaut, of course, but he also remarked on Armstrong’s service as a naval aviator in the Korean War and his hosting of a television series about aeronautics. They posed for pictures together and afterwards Armstrong talked with me about how honored he felt when meeting such individuals. I’m sure the visitor felt the same way about meeting Neil Armstrong.
Armstrong was always gracious in such settings; he sought neither the spotlight nor the adulation of millions. Perhaps he was even a bit nonplussed by all of the attention he received about Apollo 11 when he knew that he was simply one among hundreds of thousands who made possible the Moon landings. Regardless, he carried the weight of that history on his strong back for more than 40 years after returning from the Moon in the summer of 1969. We might ask in this context, “Do you know me?” Perhaps only at a surface level, but even so, we can appreciate the virtue he personified as the first person to walk on the Moon.
In the process Armstrong lived a life of quiet honor and dignity. Some have characterized him as a recluse who stayed out of the spotlight, but when one tallies his activities since Apollo 11 we see a quiet but powerful personage urging the nation’s leaders about how best to further the frontiers of flight. I know some at NASA would have preferred that he had more publicly supported its initiatives, but he often made clear his thoughtful and reflective perspective on myriad aerospace issues. His opinions carried more weight because of the manner in which he conveyed them.
In remembering Neil Armstrong it is important to note that he was first and foremost a defender of the nation in some of the most trying times in history. Like Cincinnatus at the plow, he came from the ranks of the people to stand against an aggressive empire bent on the destruction of the American way of life. He did not seek personal fame and fortune, although those came to him, but willingly put himself in danger for the good of all. When victory was assured he returned — also like Cincinnatus of Rome — to a quiet life. His military service, his work as a research pilot and his career as an astronaut were all about responding to the challenges of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. While Armstrong was a noble champion in the space program who helped carry the nation’s future into space, so much about him was opaque that we still might not be able to answer the question, “Do you know me?”
With his death Aug. 25, we lost an eloquent and insightful pioneer of space. Neil Armstrong will forever personify an era in which anything seemed possible. His passing prompts us to reflect not only on his contributions to flight but also on the present state of space exploration and what might take place in the future. So much has happened since Apollo 11 — we have made orbital flight routine, been to the Moon during Project Apollo, and turned Earth orbit into a normal realm of human activities with the space shuttle and international space station —and the possibilities for reaching once again toward other places in the solar system are present in ways not seen in more than 30 years. All of these developments are quite exciting.
At the same time, not since 1972 has any human being journeyed beyond low Earth orbit and it appears that no one will do so for the foreseeable future. A core question in considering the legacy of Neil Armstrong is whether or not he will be viewed in the future as someone akin to Christopher Columbus and his voyages to the Americas, as vanguards of sustained human exploration and settlement. Or perhaps his efforts will prove to be more like Leif Ericson’s voyages from Scandinavia several hundred years earlier, stillborn in the European process of exploration of new lands? Neil Armstrong recognized that without renewed efforts to reach beyond low Earth orbit the dreams of millions will remain unfulfilled. In that sense it may be that the question — “Do you know me?” — is appropriate not only for reflecting on the life of Neil Armstrong but also for considering the prospects for space exploration that he epitomized.
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.