When Neil Armstrong became the first human to take a step on the moon on July 16, 1969, he had just the right remark to memorialize the occasion. Those of us who were alive then can quote the 11 words that were shrouded with static as they made the 239,000-mile voyage from the lunar surface back to Earth: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
And with that, the United States, second in placing a man in space, had finished first in the slog to the moon, fulfilling a quest that President John F. Kennedy had outlined to the country. The Cold War with rival Soviet Union was never chillier than when Kennedy announced on April 20, 1961, this country’s intent of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” before the end of the decade.
That was done with five months to spare, and with almost half a billion people around the world watching, many in disbelief. It was a special time for Americans when Old Glory stabbed the moon’s dusty surface as the United States reclaimed its frontier spirit.
Armstrong, who always understood that it was simply luck that put him at the head of that line, died on Saturday at age 82. President Obama recalled him as a “reluctant hero,” one who never sought the spotlight or tried to profit from his 2 hours and 32 minutes spent frolicking on the moon.
The three-man crew of Apollo 11, which included Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the pilot of the lunar landing module dubbed the Eagle, and Michael Collins, weren’t picked for the mission because they were the best of the best. Rather, it was simply their rotation in the Apollo series of missions, and except for the failure of an earlier plan, the Apollo 10 crew would have made the first moon walk in May 1969.
That cleared the way for Armstrong’s dance with destiny. He was certainly deserving.
An admirer of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, Armstrong always had his eyes cast skyward. After serving as a pilot in the Navy and piloting 78 combat missions during the Korean War, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1955. During the next 17 years, he was an engineer, test pilot, astronaut and administrator for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and its successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The Apollo 11 mission was Armstrong’s second trip into space, the first coming as part of the Gemini 8 crew when he performed the first successful docking of two vehicles in space on March 16, 1966, and his last. Armstrong retired as an astronaut shortly after his moon trip and eventually became a teacher and businessman, but always kept close ties with NASA.
His death is a reminder of this country’s ability to rise to the challenges, whether they are above or all around us. Although he has taken his final step, Armstrong inspired generations of young people to seek excellence, so he will move together with us as all as America continues her journey of exceptionalism.