September 10, 2012 12:00 PM

It would take four days for Apollo 11 to travel from Planet Earth to the Moon. Of the three astronauts aboard, two would walk on the lunar surface. But only one could step out of the spacecraft-and into history-as the first human ever to set foot on the Moon. In the countdown to America’s most celebrated liftoff, speculation was rife: Would that first moonwalker be Cmdr. Neil Armstrong or his crewmate Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr.? “The first man on the Moon would be a legend, an American hero,” Chris Kraft, NASA’s director of flight operations, would later tell Armstrong biographer James Hansen. “Neil was Neil. Calm, quiet and absolute confidence…. He had no ego.” In the end, Kraft said, “Neil Armstrong, reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic, was our only choice.”

When the moment arrived on July 20, 1969, a global audience of more than half a billion watched and listened breathlessly as Armstrong, 38-after running low on fuel, having overridden the lunar module’s autopilot to detour to a landing spot he deemed safer than the crater it was heading for-opened the hatch and placed his left foot on the Moon. His own choice of words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” reflected a man who, colleagues say, always put the focus on group effort. Explaining how the now famous line occured to him, Armstrong told 60 Minutes in 2006, “I thought, well, when I step off, it’s just going to be a little step. But then I thought about all those 400,000 people that had given me the opportunity to make that step.”

On Aug. 25 Neil Armstrong died at 82 of complications from heart-bypass surgery. A statement on behalf of his wife, Carol Knight, 67; his 2 sons (from a first marriage), Eric, 55, and Mark, 49; and 10 grandchildren aptly described him as “a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.” But what a job it was. “He delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten,” said President Barack Obama, who ordered flags flown at half-staff the day of Armstrong’s Aug. 31 funeral in Ohio.

Though Armstrong shied from public view in the decades following his retirement from NASA in 1971, he remains vivid in the public imagination. In a 2010 Space Foundation survey, Armstrong topped the list of most popular space heroes. His own feeling about such attention? “I just don’t deserve it,” he once said. The NASA community clearly disagrees. “The best pilot I ever knew,” Aldrin said of his “good friend.” Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly in space, tweeted, “As young girl watching #NeilArmstrong step on the moon, the stars came a little bit closer & my world & expectations quite a bit larger.” Armstrong was an icon abroad too. “He inspired me to fly high,” tweeted Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

Despite a trove of awards, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Armstrong “wanted to be an ordinary person,” says Ronald Huston of the University of Cincinnati, where Armstrong taught aeronautical engineering. Perhaps as a result, his adjustment to life back on Earth was smoother than many others’. “You go to the Moon, come home, and you’re an instant celebrity,” says Gene Cernan, who in 1972 was the last to walk there. “We had to cope with that. Neil Armstrong coped with that better than anyone else.”

Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on Aug. 5, 1930, Armstrong, the oldest of three, was bitten by the flying bug as a toddler when dad Stephen Armstrong, a state auditor, took him to an air show in Cleveland. At 6, he took his first ride in a plane, and by 15, he had learned to fly-before getting a driver’s license. He took off for Purdue University on a Navy scholarship but interrupted his studies to serve as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. After flying 78 missions, he returned to Purdue, where he picked up an engineering degree, then headed off to Edwards Air Force Base to begin his civilian flying career.

At Purdue he also met his wife, Janet Shearon, a home-economics major. “Neil knew me for three years before he ever asked me for a date,” Janet recalled during the Apollo years. “His roommate told me that the first time Neil saw me, he came home and [said] that I was the girl he was going to marry. Neil isn’t one to rush into anything.” Wed in January 1956, the pair soon had three children, Eric, Karen and Mark. Tragically Karen, afflicted with a brain tumor, died in 1962 at age 2. “I thought the best thing for me to do in that situation was to continue with my work, keep things as normal as I could,” Armstrong told 60 Minutes. “I was; I was doing the best I could.”

That same year, Armstrong was selected as a NASA astronaut. “He was well-liked and a very quiet individual; he didn’t say much,” says astronaut Jim Lovell. “But when he spoke, people listened.” Over the next seven years, he flew two missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, the moonwalk, his final flight.

Two years later Armstrong took a teaching post at the University of Cincinnati (students would stand on each other’s shoulders to get a glimpse through his window) and bought a farm, where he tried to make up for lost time with his sons. “The one thing I regret was that my work required an enormous amount of time,” he later said. “I didn’t get to spend the time I would have liked with my family as they were growing up.” Friend Charlie Mechem says that Armstrong took great pride in his sons, who “love their dad.” Armstrong’s marriage, however, faltered; in 1994, after 38 years of marriage, he and Janet divorced. That year, he married Carol Knight, whom he’d met at a golf tournament in 1992.

During his post-spaceflight years, Armstrong helped investigate the 1970 Apollo 13 accident and 1986 Challenger disaster. Assiduously, he avoided commercial and political endorsements. “He didn’t capitalize on his celebrity,” says Lovell. In the Village of Indian Hill [pop: 5,900], where he lived and served on civic boards, “he just fit in with everybody else,” says Mark Tullis, the mayor. When Mechem gave him a tour of a new amusement park and offered him first go at the rides, “he sort of smiled and said, ‘Nothing too dangerous.’ He loved good jokes and good stories,” Mechem recalls. Armstrong’s other passions included golf, fishing, and always flying, preferring glider planes. Earlier this summer he flew in a Twin Cessna to attend a pal’s birthday. “That’s the kind of guy Neil was,” says Cernan. “He would do that for a friend.”

Once Armstrong asked a journalist, “How long must it take before I cease to be known as a spaceman?” Years later, asked why he would say such a thing, Armstrong replied, “We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work.” Still, for decades he entertained questions that few could answer: What was it like at liftoff? “It felt like a train on a bad railroad track and shaking in every direction. And it was loud, really loud,” he told 60 Minutes. And his thumbs-up gesture on entering the rocket? “A little bit of a sham,” he said, admitting to some nervousness. As the world mourns one of this era’s genuine icons, his family offers a fitting suggestion: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty.”

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