I wrote the following post for a now defunct website following Neil Armstrong’s death seven years ago at the age of 82. I repost it here, lightly emended, for the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon tomorrow. —JMP
I had a poster on the wall beside my bunkbed showing the planets—Pluto included, back then—in their orbits around the sun. I had more toy space shuttles than I could keep track of, and enough booster rockets and rust-orange external tanks to launch all of them into orbit above our trampoline. I went to Space Camp, ate dehydrated ice cream in vacuum-sealed packaging, and wore my blue NASA jumpsuit and pilot wings to school. I wanted to be an astronaut.
And when I thought of “astronaut,” I thought of him.
Neil Armstrong died this weekend at the age of 82, just over 43 years after taking man’s first steps on the moon. It was that moment and those words—broadcast worldwide on television—that cemented him forever as The Astronaut.
But he wasn’t just an astronaut. He was a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday when he landed the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, and the vast majority of those previous years he had spent behind the stick in hundreds of planes. He learned to fly before he got his driver’s license and, after joining the Navy, became a test pilot. As the horrific opening chapter of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff makes clear, testing aircraft was one of the most hazardous and demanding jobs in the US military. Equipment malfunction or failure was part of the job, and pilot error, even among the coolest, most daring pilots in the country, could kill a man even when everything else went right.
And Armstrong was one of the coolest and most collected of those pilots. Though he declined to be interviewed for the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, in the film his fellow Apollo astronauts speak of his bravery and cool. Archival test footage—which shows Armstrong ejecting from a flaming military prototype just above the ground, seconds before the vehicle crashes and explodes—amply back up his reputation for courage.
He was born to do his work. “Pilots take no special joy in walking,” he wrote, “pilots like flying.” And it was as a pilot that he approached the crowning moment of his career and of the space program. “The exciting part for me, as a pilot, was the landing on the moon. . . . Walking on the lunar surface was very interesting, but it was something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable. So the feeling of elation accompanied the landing rather than the walking.”
He returned home a hero, and remained a hero the rest of his life. He retired from NASA and worked as an educator, teaching aerospace engineering and devoting himself just as wholly to that as he had to his career in the Navy and the space program. “I am, and ever will be,” he said, “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”
He avoided the limelight, increasingly so as the years went by, declining interviews and attention from the media. He even stopped giving out autographs after learning that scalpers were hawking his signature for exorbitant amounts of money.
As a child, I didn’t know much of that and wouldn’t have understood if I had. I was obsessed with Armstrong for strictly one mission and one moment and wanted to emulate him, though I never saw him on TV. I had to content myself with photos in my many books about space and NASA, and the black and white footage I saw when Apollo 11 was commemorated every year. I think that added to his legend for me—he was the man who walked on the moon, the first to achieve all my astronaut dreams, and then he disappeared.
Now I understand, and my childlike worship has matured into real admiration as a result—Armstrong was humble.
As far back as Cicero and Dante, writers have imagined the awe that must come with seeing Earth for what it is, in the context of all creation. How would man, such a tiny creature, feel about himself upon seeing that his home and all he knows and loves is hardly bigger than himself against the backdrop of the universe? For a wise man, the experience should be humbling.
Neil Armstrong knew that humility. He experienced what the ancients could only imagine. Standing on the surface of the moon in 1969, the aviator, astronaut, engineer, and representative of all mankind to outer space looked up at home. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant,” he said. “I felt very, very small.”
Beyond his courage, his cool, and his willingness to risk all in the pursuit of his mission, that humility is why Armstrong is a hero—and why he will remain one.