Neil Armstrong, a self-described “nerdy” engineer, became a global hero when as a steely nerved US pilot he made “one giant leap for mankind” with the first step on the moon. The modest man who entranced and awed people on Earth has died. He was 82.
Armstrong died on Saturday following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures, a statement from his family said. It did not say where he died.
Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon July 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century’s scientific expeditions. His first words after setting foot on the surface are etched in history books and in the memories of those who heard them in a live broadcast.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said.
In those first few moments on the moon, during the climax of a heated space race with the Soviet Union, Armstrong stopped in what he called “a tender moment” and left a patch to commemorate NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in action.
“It was special and memorable, but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do,” Armstrong told an Australian television interviewer this year.
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent nearly three hours walking on the lunar surface, collecting samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs.
“The sights were simply magnificent, beyond any visual experience that I had ever been exposed to,” Armstrong once said.
The moonwalk marked the US’ victory in the Cold War space race that began on Oct. 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, a satellite that sent shock waves around the world.
An estimated 600 million people — a fifth of the world’s population — watched and listened to the moon landing, the largest audience for any single event in history.
Parents huddled with their children in front of the family television, mesmerized. Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to watch on TV.
Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA’s forerunner and an astronaut, Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamor of the space program.
“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in February 2000 in one of his rare public appearances. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Armstrong for oral histories for NASA, said Armstrong fit every requirement the space agency needed for the first man to walk on the moon, especially because of his engineering skills and the way he handled celebrity by shunning it.
“I think his genius was in his reclusiveness,” Brinkley said. “He was the ultimate hero in an era of corruptible men.”
A man who kept away from cameras, Armstrong went public in 2010 with his concerns about US President Barack Obama’s space policy that shifted attention away from a return to the moon and emphasized private companies developing spaceships.
NASA chief Charles Bolden recalled Armstrong’s grace and humility in a statement on Saturday.
“As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own,” Bolden said.