Neil Armstrong, Reluctant Hero


On July 20, 1969, Neil Alden Armstrong, a shy, soft-spoken test pilot from Wapakoneta, Ohio -- the all-American boy personified -- stepped off the ladder and took his first "small step" on the moon that symbolized a "giant leap" for humanity.

After a dangerous descent and historic touchdown -- the "moment of significance" for Mr. Armstrong -- the press speculated on who thought up the astronaut's historic words, "That's one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind." Mr. Armstrong was so shy and uncomfortable in front of cameras and microphones, often searching for the next word during long silences, that some reporters doubted the phrase was his. But it was.

"I did think about it," Mr. Armstrong said after the mission. "I decided what the words would be while we were on the lunar surface just prior to leaving the LM [Lunar Module]."

His "one small step" idea came from a children's game, known as "Mother, May I?" where players request permission to take various steps forward, and "Mother" then grants so many "baby steps" or "giant steps" and so on. Neil Armstrong's first "small step" on the Moon apparently was approved by Mother Earth.

Mr. Armstrong has been the reluctant hero from the beginning. This was a manifestation of his natural personality, as well as the very real concerns of guarding his private life and protecting his family. But the other important reason is how he views history and his place in it.

"The fact is, the whole [Apollo] program by design and by detail is the product of a lot of people's efforts. . . . It's not the same sort of thing as when Lindbergh crossed the ocean," he said before he was chosen to command Apollo 11. "This is the product of the desire of a whole society to do something. And there will be people who are identified by name to do it, but in this case it won't be the same."

Mr. Armstrong will celebrate his 64th birthday in August, just weeks after the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. For the past quarter-century, Mr. Armstrong has shunned publicity whenever possible, although he has made appearances at previous anniversary celebrations when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration asked him, and he has served on several important commissions, including chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the Peace Corps in the early '70s and vice chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in 1986.

Despite such public service on occasion, Mr. Armstrong is a loner at heart and an enigma even to people who have worked with him.

"How do you propose to restore some normalcy to your private lives in the years ahead?" a reporter asked Mr. Armstrong and his crew after Apollo 11's flight.

"It kind of depends on you," Mr. Armstrong answered, which was a roundabout way of saying, if the press left him alone, he could reclaim his private life.

"He was never comfortable with the role of public figure," says a NASA spokesman, "and avoided the limelight whenever he could."

"But it's not fair to call him a recluse, although he does avoid situations he thinks are going to be overblown or are trying to make him a central figure.

"Neil was probably naive enough to think that he could fly the first mission to land on the moon and then go back to a normal life like everyone else. That's what he did as an aviator and test pilot, after all. When he flew the X-15 and other experimental aircraft, for example, he did his job and went home."

After the summer of '69, it would never be that way again. Mr. Armstrong was soon overwhelmed by how much the publicity was encroaching on his private life.

In mid-August 1969, after 18 days of quarantine and debriefing, the Apollo 11 crew -- Mr. Armstrong, Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins -- was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City, fireworks in Chicago, then a formal state dinner in Los Angeles. A few weeks later, they began a whirlwind world tour that took them to 22 countries.

In July 1970, a year after lunar touchdown, Neil Armstrong took the position of deputy associate administrator at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for managing agency research program in aeronautics. This was the field he loved and in which he earned his undergraduate and master's degrees.

Even though this position kept him out of the limelight, and other Apollo astronauts flew to the moon and entered the media spotlights, the publicity demands on Mr. Armstrong did not subside. A year after the moon landing, his fan mail was still heavy.

The same man who avoided publicity also answered his fan mail conscientiously. It was a duty to him, part of the job. He spent three hours each day answering correspondence -- on his own time, not the government's. He even answered mail during the world tour.

One telling aspect of Mr. Armstrong's personality came forth during this Washington tour of duty in the early '70s. Beyond the letters and requests for personal appearances that Mr. Armstrong received during the two years after the mission, as many as 50 U.S. communities named public schools in his honor.

Says a NASA friend, "Neil was not comfortable with schools being named after him. He would ask, 'Why do they want to name a school after me? There's got to be individuals in those communities who have contributed far more than I could ever contribute to the community.' "

NASA's public affairs staff prepared a letter that said something like, "I am honored you are going to name a school after me." But Mr. Armstrong declined to sign such a letter. NASA also wanted to send to these schools his official, autographed NASA portrait, which he agreed to only when schools wrote and specifically requested one.

As often as Neil Armstrong has tried to play down his role in the historic flight, and play up the importance of the thousands of men and women who made the great national effort a success, he still is the first man to walk on the moon.

Mr. Armstrong has refused to accept the fact that heroes don't come in large groups -- the public has always found its hope and motivation in individuals. In 1969 we embraced the Apollo 11 threesome as great pioneers of the new space age.

Ultimately it was the demands of publicity, including requests from members of Congress for special appearances in their districts, that drove Neil Armstrong out of Washington and back to his home state of Ohio, where he accepted a faculty position at the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 1971.

Mr. Armstrong remained professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati through 1979, but cut back his teaching load during the last year so that he could spend more time on his Ohio farm and pursue other activities.

Perhaps Mr. Armstrong saw his years of teaching as a way of paying back all those midlevel engineers whose work kept him and his fellow astronauts alive on their voyage to the moon and safely back to Earth. More than once he has said that these engineers were his heroes.

Always first and foremost a pilot, Mr. Armstrong also flew jets for the Gates-Learjet Corporation and set an altitude record of 51,000 feet for business jets in early 1979. He has flown more than 200 types of aircraft in his career as a pilot and astronaut.

Mr. Armstrong's corporate affiliations have varied over the last two decades, but his most controversial alliance was with the Chrysler Corp. in 1979, when he did a television spot advertising their cars. For a decade, he had resisted trading his notoriety for profit in the marketplace. Had he finally succumbed?

"Heroes don't sell cars," commented a professor colleague. When he asked why he decided to become Chrysler's spokesman, the astronaut replied: "I'm talking about engineering. I'm not selling cars."

More recently he's been the host for the Arts & Entertainment Network series, "First Flights," where he's right at home in the cockpit of an early biplane or a jet fighter, introducing viewers to the momentous firsts and famous personalities in aviation and aerospace history.

Many of the greats Mr. Armstrong introduces on "First Flights" are among his personal heroes, especially Charles Lindbergh, who has influenced Mr. Armstrong in ways few people realize. In fact, it may be that the Lindbergh tragedy of his son's kidnapping and murder was a major factor in Mr. Armstrong's shunning publicity and the news media for almost three decades.

At the time he flew Apollo 11, he had two young boys. Because of all the media frenzy surrounding the first moon-landing mission, he may have worried about their safety. Considering the social unrest of the late 1960s, the random violence and the increasing turmoil on campuses, such threats could not be written off. One natural response to such intimidation is to actively avoid publicity and thereby gain some measure of self-protection.

This conviction and his belief that the flight was a collective achievement made him a reluctant hero long before the Apollo adventure, long before the world demanded that he and Mr. Aldrin and Mr. Collins serve as real heroes after their moon journey brought home renewed hope to the children of Mother Earth.

Neil McAleer writes about science and space. His most recent book is "Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography."

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