Neil Armstrong died last night at age 82. The high water mark of the US space program was project Apollo from 1967-72 and undoubtedly, the high water mark of Apollo was Neil’s unforgettable step off the landing pad of the Eagle.
Including Apollo 11, a total of 12 men would walk on the surface of the moon. Though the program was entirely motivated by geopolitical interests embedded in the cold war, some great science was accomplished. Neil Armstrong was unique in that very few people in history have been thrust into such a landmark “first” role. Columbus exploring the new world and Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic come immediately to mind. Armstrong was forever uncomfortable with his historic role. Always a shy and unassuming man, he avoided the limelight and struggled his whole life to maintain his own privacy.
In an age when many astronauts were known for being hot-dogging test pilot jocks with egos to match, Armstrong was always a refreshing counter-story. He was a civilian pilot at the time of his selection to the astronaut corps. He was never embroiled in any controversies and managed to avoid entanglements in questionable business ventures in his later life. To most appearances, he continued being, well, just a pretty normal guy.
His death for many will mark the end of an age, and no doubt generate more editorials and discussions of the directions of the US space program. In his modesty and humility (and perhaps even more so because of it), he was an american hero.
Here is NASA’s announcement.