Neil Armstrong: A quiet hero who left his mark on history

ByABC News
August 25, 2012, 9:11 PM

— -- Look tonight at the moon. And think of Neil Armstrong, reluctant hero, the quiet man whose footsteps still rest upon the moon and in history.

Armstrong was a pilot first and foremost, and with the dust flying, craters looming and fuel running low on July 20, 1969, he never wavered. As everyone else on Earth held their breath on that day, his heartbeat never changed as he and co-pilot Buzz Aldrin made the first piloted landing upon the moon.

"Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," Armstrong informed mission controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, with the restrained aplomb that marked his life. Two and a half hours later with the words, "That's one small step for (a) man. One giant leap for mankind," he stepped upon the moon for the first time.

Armstrong, 82, died Saturday after surgery earlier this month for blocked arteries. A fighter pilot in the Korean War, a test pilot and an engineering professor, he will also be remembered as the astronaut who fulfilled the goal that President John F. Kennedy set out — to put a man on the moon by end of the 1960's — and the first among equals in the pantheon of astronauts from the moon race.

"Neil was among the greatest of American heroes — not just of his time, but of all time," President Obama said in a statement. "When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation."

Armstrong became the symbol of the dream not just of one country but of a whole world to reach beyond our own planet . "Even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone," Aldrin said in a statement on Saturday. "Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us. I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew."

Armstrong flew dangerous mission attacking bridges during the Korean War, piloted the experimental X-15 rocket plane that ascended to the edges of space and once returned to the office after ejecting from a crashed test lunar lander, famously to complete paperwork.

"A lot of people couldn't figure out Armstrong," the author Tom Wolfe wrote in his novelization of the space race, The Right Stuff. Maybe that was because there was nothing to figure out, he was exactly who he said he was, a pilot and an engineer.

"He had nerves of steel. If anyone ever had the 'Right Stuff', it was Neil Armstrong," says space historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "But he was a dignified, quiet man. He could have had the world at his feet but he went back to teaching, that was what was important to him."

Armstrong taught engineering at University of Cincinnati from 1971 to 1979, after retiring from NASA. He served on the presidential commission that investigated the 1986 loss of the space shuttle Challenger, living quietly in Ohio until recent years, when he spoke out against NASA's current plans to not pursue a return to moon landings and to rely upon private spacecraft.

"He wasn't political in his concerns. He was speaking out from his experience ," say John Logsdon, author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. "He avoided the public spotlight as the first man on the moon. But his name will be famous forever. He is gone but his footprints are still up there and will be remembered centuries from now."