In a Gothic cathedral with spires towering towards the heavens, the nation yesterday said goodbye to a man who made history exploring the moon.
Neil Armstrong, who died Aug. 25 from complications after a cardiovascular procedure, was remembered in a solemn and sometimes emotional service in Washington National Cathedral, where a window on the south side of the cathedral holds a piece of the moon that he and other Apollo 11 astronauts collected during their historic 1969 flight.
That rock, said NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr., is “a reminder not only of their significant human accomplishment but an acknowledgement that achievements are made possible through God’s grace and guiding hand.
Bolden was a 22-year-old Marine second lieutenant in flight training the year Armstrong made his historic first steps on the moon. Armstrong’s words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” have become one of the legendary quotes in U.S. history.
“Those of us who’ve had the privilege of flying in space followed the trail he helped forge,” Bolden said.
Among the notables at the service were legendary astronauts John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin, House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and U.S. Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crewmate Michael Collins offered a traditional Celtic prayer on Armstrong’s behalf, and singer-songwriter Diana Krall, accompanying herself on a grand piano, solemnly sang “Fly Me to the Moon.”
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong, a native of Wapakoneta, made history when he became the first man to step on the moon. But long before that, he was a passionate aviator, receiving his flight certificate before he earned his driver’s license.
Fellow astronaut Eugene Cernan described him as a man with a passion for flight that began when he was 6 years old.
“Once he had tasted flight, Neil’s eyes turned skyward, and it was there that he always longed to be,” he said.
Among those in the crowd were three Eagle Scouts and one scout’s father from Wapakoneta who made the nine-hour drive from western Ohio to pay tribute to a man they’d grown up hearing about. They said they were inspired by his pioneering spirit and by how normal he chose to remain after he made history.
“He was somebody who changed history, was a big part of history, yet for the rest of his life he chose to be a humble man,” said Eric Temple, father of scout Alec Temple, 16. “He knew it wasn’t just him, himself who did it, but everybody that was behind him – the engineers, the people at NASA.”
Outside the cathedral, Roger Myers of Washington, D.C. recalled the brief period when he was one of the 400,000 working on the Apollo project. He was 28 then, and remembers seeing Armstrong drive around Cocoa Beach.
Decades later, his eyes welled up outside the Cathedral as he recalled the small part he played in history.
“I came here to be with my tribe,” he said. “We made this happen. We didn’t do it by dividing each other. We cooperated, 400,000 people cooperated to make it happen.”
During the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission, there’d been some debate over whether Armstrong or Aldrin would be the first man on the moon.
But yesterday, Cernan said that fate meant for Armstrong to the the one.
“No one could’ve accepted the responsibility of his remarkable accomplishment with more dignity and more grace than Neil Armstrong,” he said. “He embodied all that is good and all that is great about America.”
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