Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who marked an epochal achievement in exploration with “one small step” from the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969, becoming the first person to walk on the moon, died Saturday at 82.
His family announced the death in a statement but did not disclose where he died. They attributed it to “complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.”
A taciturn engineer and test pilot who was never at ease with his fame, Armstrong was among the most heroized Americans of the 1960s Cold War space race.
His trip to the moon — particularly the hair-raising final descent from lunar orbit to the treacherous surface — was history's boldest feat of aviation. Yet what the experience meant to him, what he thought of it all on an emotional level, he mostly kept to himself.
Like his boyhood idol, transatlantic aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Armstrong learned how uncomfortable the intrusion of global acclaim can be. And just as Lindbergh had done, he eventually shied from the public and avoided the popular media.
In time, he became almost mythical.
Armstrong was “exceedingly circumspect” from a young age, and the glare of international attention “just deepened a personality trait that he already had in spades,” said his authorized biographer, James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian.
The perilous, 195-hour journey that defined Armstrong's place in history — from the liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, to the capsule's splashdown in the Pacific eight days later — riveted the world's attention, transcending cultural, political and generational divides in an era of profound social tumult and change in the United States.
As Armstrong, a civilian, and his crewmates, Air Force pilots Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, hurtled through space, television viewers around the globe witnessed a drama of spellbinding technology and daring. About a half-billion people listened to the climactic landing and watched a flickering video feed of the moon walk.
After flying experimental rocket planes in the 1950s at Edwards Air Force Base in California — the high-desert realm of daredevil test pilots later celebrated in author Tom Wolfe's “The Right Stuff” — Armstrong was selected for NASA's astronaut corps in 1962 and became the first U.S. civilian to be blasted into space.
In 1966, during his only space flight other than Apollo 11, a life-threatening malfunction of his Gemini 8 vehicle caused the craft to tumble out of control in Earth orbit. It was the nation's first potentially fatal crisis in space, prompting Armstrong and his crewmate, David Scott, to abort their mission and carry out NASA's first emergency re-entry.
How Armstrong wound up commanding the historic flight had to do with his abilities and experience, plus a measure of good fortune.
Months earlier, when he had been named Apollo 11 commander, NASA envisioned his mission as the first lunar landing — yet no one could be sure. Three other Apollo flights had to finish preparing the way. If any of them had failed, Apollo 11 would have had to pick up the slack, leaving the momentous first landing to a later crew.
Why the space agency chose Armstrong, not Aldrin, for the famous first step out of the LM had to do with the two men's personalities.
Publicly, NASA said the first-step decision was a technical one dictated by where the astronauts would be positioned in the LM's small cockpit. But in his 2001 autobiography, Christopher C. Kraft Jr., a top NASA flight official, confirmed the true reason.
Aldrin, who would struggle with alcoholism and depression after his astronaut career, was overtly opinionated and ambitious, making it clear within NASA why he thought he should be first. “Did we think Buzz was the man who would be our best representative to the world, the man who would be legend?” Kraft recalled. “We didn't.”
As for Armstrong’s famous statement upon stepping off the ladder, Armstrong said he didn't dwell on it much beforehand, that the idea came to him only after the landing.
He would always maintain that he had planned to say “a man.” Whether the “a” was lost in transmission or Armstrong misspoke has never been fully resolved. As his boots touched the lunar surface at 10:56:15 p.m. Eastern time, the world heard:
“That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil Alden Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, outside the little farming town of Wapakoneta in western Ohio. From the morning in 1936 when his father, an auditor of county records, let him skip Sunday school so the two could go aloft in a barnstorming Ford Trimotor plane near their home, the boy was hooked on aviation.
He got his pilot's license on his 16th birthday, before he was legally old enough to go solo in an automobile.
After a few semesters at Purdue University, he left for Navy flight training in 1949, eventually becoming the youngest pilot in his fighter squadron on the aircraft carrier USS Essex. He flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War and was shot down once before his tour of duty ended and he went back to Purdue.
After earning an aeronautical engineering degree in 1955, he joined NASA's forerunner, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and was soon rocketing in the stratosphere, pushing the boundaries of aviation in missile-like research planes.
In 1959, at the beginning of the Mercury project, which would soon blast the first American into space, NASA chose its storied “original seven” astronauts from the ranks of active-duty military fliers. Armstrong, who was less than enthusiastic about the program, remained at Edwards as a civilian test pilot.
Then, in 1962, his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, died of brain cancer. Armstrong's grief “caused him to invest (his) energies in something very positive,” his sister recalled in an interview with Hansen. “That's when he started into the space program.”
Not long after Karen's death, when NASA recruited its second group of astronauts, about 250 test pilots applied, and Armstrong was among the nine who made the cut. Most took part in the Earth-orbiting Gemini missions of the mid-1960s, refining flight procedures that would be needed later in the moon-bound Apollo program.
Armstrong's harrowing Gemini 8 flight, in March 1966, was aborted hours into its three-day schedule after the spacecraft began toppling end-over-end, pinwheeling so violently that Armstrong, the commander, and crewmate David Scott were in danger of blacking out, which almost surely would have been fatal.
A malfunctioning thruster was the culprit. “I gotta cage my eyeballs,” Armstrong remarked, deadpan, as he and Scott, their vision blurred, struggled to cut short their flight. NASA officials were impressed by Armstrong's handling of the crisis, and three years later they entrusted him with command of the ultimate mission.
After weeks of hoopla surrounding Apollo 11's return — a ticker-tape parade, a presidential dinner, a 28-city global goodwill tour — Armstrong worked in NASA management for two years, then joined the University of Cincinnati's engineering faculty.
“We were not naive, but we could not have guessed what the volume and intensity of public interest would turn out to be,” he said of his worldwide celebrity.
Over the ensuing decades, Armstrong, a solitary figure, warded off reporters' efforts to penetrate his privacy until most gave up or lost interest. Unhappy with faculty unionism, he resigned from the university in 1979 and spent the rest of his working life in business, amassing personal wealth as an investor and a member of corporate boards.
Although he was loathe to exploit his fame, Armstrong signed on as a pitchman for Chrysler in his waning months as a professor, appearing in ads for the nearly bankrupt automaker, including one that aired during the Super Bowl in January 1979.
He said he agreed to the deal mainly because it involved an engineering consultancy and because he wanted to help a beleaguered U.S. company buffeted by imports and rising foreign oil prices. The arrangement was short-lived, however, and afterward Armstrong repeatedly turned down opportunities to endorse products.
Hansen, now an aerospace historian at Auburn University, said Armstrong felt awkward taking credit for the collective success of 400,000 employees of the space agency and its Apollo contractors. In 2003, Hansen recorded 55 hours of interviews with Armstrong after years of coaxing him to cooperate on a biography.
He was not a recluse, as some labeled him. In 1986, for instance, he was vice chairman of the commission that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
But that was a rare step into the spotlight. As a rule, Armsrong was extremely choosey about his public appearances, limiting them mostly to aerospace-related commemorative events and to other usually low-key gatherings that piqued his interest, such as meetings of scientific and technical societies.
“The lunar Lindbergh,” he was dubbed for his refusal to grant interviews to journalists. His remoteness also irked some NASA officials, who had vainly hoped that Armstrong would become a forceful public advocate for the funding of space exploration.
“How long must it take before I can cease to be known as a spaceman?” he once pleaded. Yet by the time he retired in 2002, to leisurely travel and enjoy his grandchildren, the “First Man” finally had outlived the nation's fascination with him, and he could often walk down a street in blissful anonymity.
His 38-year marriage to the former Janet Shearon ended in divorce in 1994. Later that year, he married Carol Knight, a widowed mother of two teenagers. “Looking back, we were really very privileged to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself, and what he might become, and where he might go,” Armstrong said in a 2001 NASA oral history project. “So I'm very thankful.”