For those of a certain age, Armstrong's death conjured up images of a July night in 1969, when he descended the steps of the lunar lander, set foot on the surface of the moon, and uttered the epic words:
"That's one small step for man...one giant leap for mankind."
In a sense, the accomplishments of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts (Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins) represented the apogee of American exceptionalism. While Collins waited in the command module, Aldrin and Armstrong descended to the lunar surface, explored its dusty terrain and returned, making good on President Kennedy's promise to reach the moon--and return--within a decade.
At the time, it seemed a near-impossible task, given the initial failures of our rockets and the early lead established by the Soviets. But we quickly regained the advantage and rode that momentum all the way to the moon, culminating in the mission of Apollo 11, led by a taciturn engineer from Ohio named Neil Armstrong.
In retrospect, Armstrong's journey to the moon was almost inevitable. He earned his pilot's license at 15, and was flying light aircraft before he could drive a car. Armstrong attended Purdue on a Navy scholarship that paid for his engineering studies, with a promise of pilot training when his number came up.
Called to active duty in 1949, Armstrong qualified as a naval aviator (two weeks after his 20th birthday) and logged scores of combat missions during the Korean War, flying F9F Panther jets. One one occasion, he was forced the eject from a damaged plane after it struck a wire during a low strafing pass. Armstrong managed the fly the jet back to friendly territory before he bailed out and was picked up by a classmate from pilot training. He became a member of the "Caterpillar Club" for a second time during his NASA career, when he had to eject from an aircraft that replicated the lunar module, just before it crashed.
After leaving the Navy, Armstrong joined NASA's forerunner (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and eventually became a civilian test pilot, working at Edwards AFB, California. Between 1955 and 1962, Armstrong flew chase planes on a number of test flights and flew a number of research missions himself, piloting rocket aircraft like the Bell X-1B and the North American X-15.
As recounted in James Hansen's 2006 biography, Armstrong flew the longest mission in the history of the X-15 program, completely by accident. After zooming to an altitude of 207,000 feet, Armstrong began his planned descent into Edwards.
Unfortunately, he kept the jet plane's nose up too long, so when he reached 140,000 feet, Armstrong and the X-15 literally bounced" off the atmosphere, sending them back towards the edge of space and miles off course. Armstrong recovered, but by that time, he was more than 40 miles south of Edwards, and running out of altitude--and time. He managed to land the X-15 safely, just clearing the Joshua trees at the end of the runway. Test pilots like Chuck Yeager (who never went to college) said that men like Armstrong--with a strong engineering background--were more "mechanical" flyers, who sometimes lacked the intuitive skills that could get them out of trouble in cockpit.
But if Armstrong wasn't a natural "stick-and-rudder" man like Yeager, he had other skills that were useful as a test pilot, and later, an astronaut. One of his NASA colleagues said Armstrong had a mind that "soaked up information like a sponge," a high compliment indeed, since all of the astronauts were exceptionally bright men. Incidentally, Armstrong's application for the astronaut corps (as the part of the second group that would be selected) arrived past the original deadline. But one of his friends who was involved in the selection process spotted Armstrong's package and slipped it into pile.
Within four years of becoming an astronaut, Armstrong was selected as command pilot for Gemini 8. But technical problems marred the mission; when their capsule began to spin out of control, Armstrong and Scott were forced to scrub a planned spacewalk; separate from an unmanned vehicle and cut their flight short. Armstrong returned to earth depressed, but the issues that affected Gemini 8 had no impact on his career; on December 23, 1968, as Apollo 8 orbited the moon, Armstrong was offered command of Apollo 11 and with it, the opportunity to become the first man on the moon. The flight went off without a hitch, and Armstrong became a global icon.
But fame and Armstrong were never an easy fit. After announcing his retirement from space flight, Armstrong was made a deputy administrator at NASA, but resigned that post after only a few months. He spent most of the 1970s as a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, but left that position after eight years, for reasons that were never publicly disclosed.
He also declined opportunities to capitalize on his fame. He gave few speeches (and even fewer interviews) and sat on a few corporate boards, foregoing the opportunity to cash in on his status as the first man on the moon. Armstrong stopped signing autographs in the early 1990s, after learning that some were reselling his signature for up to $2500 and sued his long-time barber after learning the man had sold clippings of his hair to a collector. The suit was later settled when the barber agreed to donate the money to charity.
Neil Armstrong was, by nature, a very private man, so his decision to avoid the spotlight was understandable. It was also a reflection of his Midwest upbringing and his training as a pilot and engineer. From Neil Armstrong's perspective, he was simply doing his job, and he did it brilliantly.
R.I.P., Mr. Armstrong.
ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from Arthur Herman in the New York Post.