Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, died Saturday at 82. The hundreds of millions people around the world who viewed grainy, black-and-white TV images of that step never forgot that moment. Neither have succeeding generations around the globe.
Armstrong's words as he stepped onto the lunar surface -- "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" -- are among the most quoted in history. Armstrong was uncomfortable, even troubled, by the fame that followed the mission that took him to the moon and back. After leaving NASA, he chose not to take advantage of his fame. He even refused to sign autographs after he learned that his signature sold to collectors for big bucks.
Armstrong became a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati and only occasionally made public appearances and statements. One thing he did do, though, was to speak publicly about the benefits of space exploration. As recently as last year, he told members of Congress that it was a mistake to cancel NASA's program to return men to the moon and to rely on commercial companies to work in space. Then he returned to the quiet life he preferred.
Armstrong was born and raised in Ohio. At six, his father took him on a ride in a Ford Trimotor plane, an event that inspired the youngster. He learned to fly and had a pilot's license before he obtained a driver's license. He studied engineering in college, flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War and became an astronaut in the halcyon days of the program.
His historic moon journey was the luck of the draw. His three-man crew was the next in rotation when the mission was scheduled. The rest is now familiar -- the tense landing with little fuel to spare, the laconic words -- "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." -- traveling across space, the first step on the lunar surface, the iconic image of Armstrong's bootprint and the exuberant antics of Armstrong and fellow moonwalker Buzz Armstrong as Michael Collins remained in orbit some 60 miles above them. Some estimate that about one of every six people on earth on July 20, 1969, watched the event, the result of a unified nation working toward a definitive goal. Such unity of national purpose, sadly, is a rarity now.
When President John F. Kennedy told Americans in 1961 that he believed "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,'' he surely had no idea about the identity of the first person to step onto the moon. That person was Neil Armstrong, a quintessentially American hero whose courage and vision continue to inspire those who look to the heavens and see challenges rather than barriers to mankind.