Remembering 'Reluctant Hero' Neil Armstrong

Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, died Saturday. He was 82. Armstrong solidified his place in history on July 20, 1969 when he left the first human footprint on the surface of the moon. NPR's Neal Conan remembers the man his family called a "reluctant hero."

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

In retrospect, what Neil Armstrong accomplished all those years ago is scarcely less astonishing now than it was when he stepped out onto the moon. He would've been the first to say that he was just one member of a big team, that the hard work and genius of many others made it possible for him to climb down the ladder of the lunar lander one slow step at a time as the world held its breath. Over the past couple of days, that world has remembered Neil Armstrong, the test pilot, the engineer, the jet fighter pilot, the astronaut, the hero. And, yes, he would flinch from that last word. But to many, he defined it.

In the British newspaper The Guardian, Amy Teitel ended her column with this: We are, by nature, curious beings with a thirst for knowledge of the world around us. Armstrong has inspired those who watched his first steps on the moon and those who read about him in school books 10, 20 and 30 years later. It's up to the historians now to preserve Armstrong's legacy so that others can experience that same moment of wonder when they read about the moon landing for the first time because Armstrong will always be the first man to walk on the moon, and he will always embody the spirit of Apollo.

We'd like to hear about your Neal Armstrong moment today. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join in on our Web page, which you can find at npr.org. We'll read a few excerpts from other remembrances as well and hear some stories. This is an email from Shannon in Ohio. I was one month shy of 5 years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It's my first memory in life. From that day on, whenever someone asks what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied an astronaut. Forty years later, I still dream of going to space, and my appreciation of astronomy and our place in the universe was born watching men walk on the moon. It may have been a small step, but it was a giant leap for my imagination and dreams. Godspeed, Neil Armstrong. Godspeed. And let's get Jay on the line, Jay with us from Pleasanton in California.

JAY: Hello. Thank you. A thought occurred to me. I was 14 years old when we stayed up late that night and watched them land on the moon. And a thought occurred to me this week when he died that I hadn't thought of before. We remember people from history, from a century or two ago, but very few people in history remember it a thousand years later. You know, it occurred to me that of all the people that I shared the planet with in my lifetime, Neil Armstrong seems to be the one sure lock to be still a household name a thousand years from now. He's the first of our species to step on another world, and I think that makes you a lock to be remembered a thousand years from now whenever humanity is then.

CONAN: It's an interesting way to think about it. A person we shared the planet with who's going to be remembered a thousand years from now.

JAY: That's got to be a really short list. Only one I could even think of was Einstein, but I don't know if he's a lock. But Armstrong is a lock. It's easy to imagine countries or capital cities on Mars named Armstrong someday, you know?

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

JAY: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Nazren(ph) in Cincinnati. I was a kid growing in Kabul, Afghanistan. I clearly remember that day when my mom told us that President Kennedy's dream became a reality. The news of the first man landing touched us all, even in a little known place at that time, Kabul. Now I live in the state of Ohio and graduated from the University of Cincinnati where Mr. Armstrong once taught.

Let's go to next Leslie, and Leslie on the line with us from Little Rock.

LESLIE: Yes (unintelligible).

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

LESLIE: Well, I was very lucky to have been invited to the White House by President Clinton for the 30th anniversary of the moon landing and spent the morning with the - with Mr. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. And it was just one of the greatest moments of my life as a NASA geek and...

CONAN: And - go ahead.

LESLIE: Well, I just say everything they say about him being sort of shy and not wanting to take credit for anything. I mean, he realized that he's the one that got the attention and always talked about it was a just a mission that involved, you know, thousands, tens of thousands of people, and he never wanted to play on that, you know? So very shy about that. And what he really liked to talk about apparently, and which I did talk to him about a bit - was his days as an F-15 test pilot. Those were the romantic moments for him.

CONAN: I wonder, on WEEKEND EDITION yesterday, Astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who was a colleague of Armstrong, talked about his old friend and some aspects that maybe we weren't so familiar with.

LESLIE: Had a great sense of humor, actually, which not too many people were aware of. But he was really just a very, very modest and gracious person.

CONAN: Modest, gracious, I think that's two words that everybody uses. I don't remember the sense of humor part. Leslie?

LESLIE: Yes. Oh, you were talking to me.

CONAN: Yeah.

LESLIE: I didn't see it either. I mean, he smiled a lot. He was very charming, and he was just a very, excuse the pun, down-to-Earth kind of a guy, but...

CONAN: OK.

LESLIE: ...I didn't hear him saying anything particularly funny. But he did smile a lot and laugh at other people's comment.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LESLIE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And this is from an editorial in The Wall Street Journal: As the first human to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong bore a heavy load. One shudders to think what the pressure on him would be like now in our celebritized age. Armstrong was the right man for a larger-than-life experience. He was the consummate professional engineer, a self-described geek, who always said that his achievement was the product of many minds and strong wills. He was instinctively self-effacing, as his recollections nearby show. If he receded from public view after Apollo 11, it was to minimize any chance that history's focus would shift away from NASA's achievement on that mission.

This is a moment when some are inclined to say, they don't make them like that anymore, but they do still make them like that if only we have the wit to find and support them. Neil Armstrong's death at age 82 is an occasion to elevate again in the public eye the personal values that he represented: excellence, fortitude, worthy dreams and personal humility.

Let's go next to Hank, and Hank's on the line with us from Denver.

HANK: Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

HANK: I - Saturday was a sad day in our house because, you know, Neil Armstrong, he was all those things you just mentioned, but he was also an icon of curiosity. He was an inspiration to those of us who were old enough to remember the moonwalk as someone who kind of exemplified the willingness to ask questions and wonder and wander. And, you know, I think the world needs more of that. and his passing maybe reminds us that we don't have an icon like that as well-known or as visible that kind of inspire our kids.

CONAN: I wonder, did you incorporate that sense of curiosity in your life?

HANK: I did. I never met Neil Armstrong, but I think, as I look back and I thought about it over the weekend, that watching the moonwalk with my dad, who was an Air Force enlisted man and my family - I was young. I was 5-years-old and, you know, you don't remember much usually from that age. But I do remember that, and I think that was really the moment when I started walking down the path of becoming a science teacher, which is what I do for a living.

CONAN: And it's the same thing that Neil Armstrong did after he wound up his career as an astronaut.

HANK: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, he was - and I think that's another thing that's really admirable about Armstrong is he never tried to take advantage of what he had done to keep the spotlight on himself or to enrich his family or to, you know, make a gain in his life. He lived a, you know, a kind of quiet life, and certainly, he could have made another choice, but he let his achievement speak for itself.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

HANK: You bet.

CONAN: That aspect of Neil Armstrong's life was noted by Gene Seymour in a piece he wrote for CNN.com. Here's a excerpt: Before, during and after that epochal journey, Armstrong came across as something of an enigma to global media anxious to make him the brightest star on Earth. This was going to be tough. Rather than having the jaunty wit of a Wally Schirra, the affable magnetism of a John Glenn or the flinty swagger of a Chuck Yeager, Neil Armstrong came across as nothing more than the earnest, no-nonsense engineer he actually was. No artifice, no flash, no, well, frankly, no star power to think of.

Armstrong taught at Cincinnati for eight years after - before leaving in 1979, characteristically without explanation. He was hardly a recluse afterward, though he maintained a relatively low profile, lower, anyway, than you'd expect for the first man on the moon. He sat on boards of banks and corporations and served on various commissions, including the one investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster. That panel included another space pioneer, Sally Ride, who died little more than a month ago.

Still, by his ninth decade on planet Earth, Armstrong seemed to be more relaxed in public and generally more visible than he used to be. If anything, his time hugging the corners of fame made him seem even more admirable as a man who refused to sell himself or his legacy out no matter what temptations were available in a celebrity-crazed culture.

For one spellbinding week 43 summers ago, Neil Armstrong did something that once seemed unimaginable. Since then, he lived his wife - life in a way that now seems improbable.

At age of 14, Neil deGrasse Tyson, now the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, met Neil Armstrong. Both were passengers aboard the SS Canberra, an ocean liner, when they went to see a total solar eclipse in 1973.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: For me, what matters there is he's an American icon because he embodied all of our dreams of what it is to explore. And since we haven't been back to the moon in 40 years, for me, part of me died with him because he's - the dream hasn't been sustained and that worries me greatly about the future of our space-faring nation.

CONAN: We're remembering Neil Armstrong, who died this past weekend. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Keith. Keith with us from Gainesville.

KEITH: Oh, thank you for the opportunity to share a bit of a personal story. The launch director - the first launch director of Kennedy Space Center, Grady Williams, used to hold his party at his house to get engineers and astronauts together. And my dad having been a senior engineer and me being a wee kid, got to meet astronauts in a more casual environment. I've been told I met Neil. I don't remember it. Later on, I vaguely remember meeting Gus Grissom born in Cape Canaveral Hospital, you know, kind of space-kissed kid.

The other personal story is - you may recall that Apollo 11, there was a concerned that it would not be able to return safely to Earth because they might not be able to link up with the command module because of a radar problem. So my dad was in charge of Grumman's LEM program at that time, and he wrote a workaround on a piece of paper and got it to Neil and Buzz. And I'm told that they did have to use that workaround in order to make the rendezvous radar work.

CONAN: That's fascinating. So this was not a just-along-for-the-ride kind of a trip?

KEITH: No.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: It's a wonderful thing to have watched every Apollo mission from the premises of the center and watch Apollo 17, the only space mission - the only Saturn V to go up at night and made all the stars disappear.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

KEITH: Thank you.

CONAN: This is an email that we have from Susan in Hayes, Virginia: In July 1969, my 18-month-old son, Michael, and I were living with my parents in Hampton, Virginia, while my husband, Jim, was serving a tour of duty in Okinawa with the U.S. Air Force. On the night of the moonwalk, while the rest of us were watching the events on TV, Michael's nana, my mother, carried him out onto the front porch where they stood and marveled at the beauty and mystery of the moon. I can still see them in my mind's eye looking up, Michael's face alight with the wonder only a child can experience, a real man had walked on the moon.

Alan's(ph) on the line with us from Boulder, Colorado.

ALAN: Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

ALAN: Good. I sat and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon with my wife's 92-year-old great aunt who had crossed the plains in a covered wagon.

CONAN: My goodness.

ALAN: Yeah. Isn't that something? And I asked her, Aunt Bessie, are you surprised you - that he's there? She said, well, I saw the planes, the trains and the cars and the airplanes come, so I'm not surprised he's there. I'm surprised I can see him there.

(LAUGHTER)

ALAN: Isn't that a great story?

CONAN: That is a great story.

ALAN: She was a terrific lady, and he was a wonderful guy. When we heard about it yesterday, my wife cried.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

ALAN: Thank you.

CONAN: In Time.com, Jeffrey Kluger recalled Armstrong's preternatural calm in several incidents involving test aircraft, jet fighter planes and space capsules, some of which nearly killed him.

It was the lunar module Eagle that nearly took out Armstrong the final time when he and Buzz Aldrin were making their final approach to their Tranquility Base landing site on July 20, 1969. Tranquility Base had been extensively mapped by unmanned orbiters. And while NASA knew the eyesight of the orbiters was not sharp enough to resolve objects as small as boulders, they reckoned they could recognize a boulder field when they saw one from the surrounding topography.

So the Lunar Excursion Module's, LEM's computer was supposed to handle the actual landing, which it did just fine, until Armstrong and Aldrin were making their final approach when the warning panel flashed what was called a 1202 alarm and then a 1201, both indicating that the system was overloaded and could process no more. The LEM by then was exceedingly low on fuel. And if the needle hit empty, there'd be no running on residue sloshing in the tank that motorists call fumes and astronauts call blowdown. Empty meant empty and that meant shutdown.

And then, of course, the boulders appeared all over the prime landing zone were massive rocks impossible to navigate and deadly to try even to approach. Armstrong took the stick from the harried computer, tilted the half-upright LEM into a head-forward lean and flew in the flat across the boulder field, finally touching down on a spot of soil that had been wholly unremarkable for the entire 4 billion years of the moon's existence and would now become the most powerfully evocative patch of real estate in all of human history. There were, NASA later calculated, about 30 seconds of fuel left in the tank.

Jeffrey Kluger also recalled a visit to U.S. troops in the Middle East with Apollo astronauts. One evening during the Middle East tour, all the astronauts were onstage before an audience of service members young enough to be their grandchildren. During the question-and-answer session, one soldier asked Armstrong if he wouldn't mind taking the mike and, well, saying the words, the words, those one-small-step words. I winced and I suspect Lovell and Cernan did too. This was dog-and-pony stuff of the highest order. Armstrong just smiled and reached for the mike. His hand seemed shaky and his voice was weak, not the clear Midwestern tones that were spoken in 1969 that had been heard and heard and heard ever since. But he spoke the words all the same, and the audience roared, and the applause rained down. And it was just the coolest and grandest and finest thing you could ever hope to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

CONAN: So safe commander is Commander Armstrong and thank you. That again from Jeffrey Kluger of Time.com. A private service is planned in Cincinnati on Friday for Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. President Barack Obama has ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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