Neil Alden Armstrong, the Auglaize County native with a childhood fascination with flight who strode into aviation history in 1969 when he became the first human to walk on the moon, died Saturday. He was 82.
Armstrong died following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures, his family said in a statement. Armstrong had had a bypass operation this month, according to NASA. His family didn’t say where he died; he had lived in suburban Cincinnati. He also lived near Lebanon for decades.
Armstrong and the famous moon landing
Born Aug. 3, 1930, on his grandparents’ farm near Wapakoneta, 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 words after becoming the first person to set foot on the surface are etched in history books and 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.
(Armstrong insisted later that he had said “a” before man, but said he too couldn’t hear it in the version that went to the world.)
He found the mantle of fame an uncomfortable fit, and rarely spoke about his achievements.
“He was a very private man, so few people in the area actually had much contact with him, but Neil Armstrong left such a legacy to the area as well as the country that his passing is a huge loss,” said Lebanon Mayor Amy Brewer.
In those first few moments on the moon, during the climax of a heated space race with the then-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 America’s victory in the Cold War space race that began Oct. 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, a 184-pound satellite that sent shock waves around the world.
The 'real' Armstrong
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 glamour of the space program.
“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in 2000 in a public appearances. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
Fellow Ohioan and astronaut John Glenn, one of Armstrong’s closest friends, recalled Saturday how Armstrong was down to the last 15 seconds to 35 seconds of fuel when he finally brought the Eagle down on the Sea of Tranquility.
“That showed a dedication to what he was doing that was admirable,” Glenn said.
A man who kept away from cameras, Armstrong went public in 2010 with his concerns about President Barack Obama’s space policy that shifted attention away from a return to the moon and emphasized private companies developing spaceships. He testified before Congress and in an email to The Associated Press, Armstrong said he had “substantial reservations,” and along with more than two dozen Apollo-era veterans, he signed a letter calling the plan a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”
Obama, Romney reaction
Armstrong was among the greatest of American heroes, 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. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable — that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible,” Obama said.
Obama’s Republican opponent Mitt Romney echoed those sentiments, calling Armstrong an American hero whose passion for space, science and discovery will inspire him for the rest of his life.
“With courage unmeasured and unbounded love for his country, he walked where man had never walked before. The moon will miss its first son of earth,” Romney said.
NASA chief Charles Bolden recalled Armstrong’s grace and humility.
“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 in a statement.
Armstrong and John Glenn
Armstrong’s modesty and self-effacing manner never faded.
When he appeared in Dayton in 2003 to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight, he bounded onto a stage before 10,000 people packed into a baseball stadium. But he spoke for only a few seconds, did not mention the moon, and quickly ducked out of the spotlight.
He later joined Glenn, by then a senator, to lay wreaths on the graves of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Glenn introduced Armstrong and noted it was 34 years to the day that Armstrong had walked on the moon.
“Thank you, John. Thirty-four years?” Armstrong quipped, as if he hadn’t given it a thought.
At another joint appearance, the two embraced and Glenn commented: “To this day, he’s the one person on Earth, I’m truly, truly envious of.”
Armstrong’s moonwalk capped a series of accomplishments that included piloting the X-15 rocket plane and making the first space docking during the Gemini 8 mission, which included a successful emergency splashdown.
In the years afterward, Armstrong retreated to the quiet of the classroom and his southwest Ohio farm. Aldrin said in his book “Men from Earth” that Armstrong was one of the quietest, most private men he had ever met.
The early years
Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, on a farm near Wapakoneta in western Ohio. He took his first airplane ride at age 6 and developed a fascination with aviation that prompted him to build model airplanes and conduct experiments in a homemade wind tunnel.
As a boy, he worked at a pharmacy and took flying lessons. He was licensed to fly at 16, before he got his driver’s license.
Armstrong enrolled in Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering but was called to duty with the U.S. Navy in 1949 and flew 78 combat missions in Korea.
After the war, Armstrong finished his degree from Purdue and later earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. He became a test pilot with what evolved into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, flying more than 200 kinds of aircraft from gliders to jets.
Armstrong was accepted into NASA’s second astronaut class in 1962 — the first, including Glenn, was chosen in 1959 — and commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. After the first space docking, he brought the capsule back in an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean when a wildly firing thruster kicked it out of orbit.
Historic day in Ohio
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.
Afterward, people walked out of their homes and gazed at the moon, in awe of what they had just seen. Others peeked through telescopes in hopes of spotting the astronauts.
In Wapakoneta, media and souvenir frenzy was swirling around the home of Armstrong’s parents.
“You couldn’t see the house for the news media,” recalled John Zwez, former manager of the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum. “People were pulling grass out of their front yard.”
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were given ticker tape parades in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and later made a 22-nation world tour. A homecoming in Wapakoneta drew 50,000 people to the city of 9,000.
Life after NASA includes Cincinnati
In 1970, Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA but left the following year to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
He remained there until 1979 and during that time bought a 310-acre farm near Lebanon, where he raised cattle and corn. He stayed out of public view, accepting few requests for interviews or speeches.
“He didn’t give interviews, but he wasn’t a strange person or hard to talk to,” said Ron Huston, a colleague at the University of Cincinnati. “He just didn’t like being a novelty.”
Those who knew him said he enjoyed golfing with friends, was active in the local YMCA and frequently ate lunch at the same restaurant in Lebanon.
In 2000, when he agreed to announce the top 20 engineering achievements of the 20th century as voted by the National Academy of Engineering, Armstrong said there was one disappointment relating to his moonwalk.
“I can honestly say — and it’s a big surprise to me — that I have never had a dream about being on the moon,” he said.
From 1982 to 1992, Armstrong was chairman of Charlottesville, Va.-based Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc., a company that supplies computer information management systems for business aircraft.
He then became chairman of AIL Systems Inc., an electronic systems company in Deer Park, N.Y.
Armstrong married Carol Knight in 1999, and the couple lived in Indian Hill, a Cincinnati suburb. He had two adult sons from a previous marriage.
At the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles on Saturday, visitors held a minute of silence for Armstrong. For anyone else who wanted to remember him, his family’s statement made a simple request:
“Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
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