A smile for the ages

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If so, I have one for you. It came to mind last week when I heard of the death of Neil Armstrong, famed for being the first to set foot upon the Moon. His boyish face appeared on many photos through the years, as a Korean fighter pilot, civilian test pilot and eventually as one of the second group of astronauts selected by NASA. After John Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon before decade's end, one of the men in this second group that called themselves the "Next Nine" or the "Nifty Nine" — in contrast to the "Original Seven" astronauts — was destined to be the first to touch the lunar surface. And Mr. Armstrong became the one.

But there are few photos of Mr. Armstrong on the moon. Mr. Armstrong himself carried the lone Hasselblad camera destined for the surface. The iconic photos of that first lunar landing show an astronaut descending the steps of the lunar lander, standing at attention by the American flag, setting up experiments or posing amid the stark lunar landscape. Each of those photos is of Mr. Armstrong's crew mate, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. The one known photo of Mr. Armstrong on the moon is a distant shot of the lunar lander taken when Mr. Aldrin had the camera. The American flag appears on the left, the lunar lander to the right with one of its storage bays open. And poking around in the storage bay is Mr. Armstrong, bent over as if searching for some tool or instrument, his back to the camera. Such is the photographic record of the first man on the moon. But this is not the image that comes to mind.


The image I remember is not from the lunar surface in bulky spacesuits but after that historic stroll. After 21/2 hours of exploring the lunar surface, setting up an array of experiments and collecting rock and soil samples, Armstrong and Aldrin crawled back into the cramped quarters of the lunar lander. They took off their helmets and started the process of preparing for a well-deserved night's rest as the first humans to sleep on another world. The memorable photo was taken then.

Mr. Aldrin held the camera and pointed it at an exhausted, satisfied Neil Armstrong. His look says a lot about the culmination of a man's — and a nation's — work. There was no certainty that this mission would succeed. President Richard Nixon, who famously talked to the astronauts while they walked the moon's surface, had a prepared speech memorializing the astronauts who would not return to Earth, just in case. After all, it was only 21/2 years earlier that Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee burned to death inside the locked Apollo command capsule when a spark ignited the combustible pure oxygen atmosphere surrounding them. Few thought that, 30 months later, their fellow astronauts would make it to the moon. And that a relieved Neil Armstrong would be able to smile for Mr. Aldrin's camera with the knowledge that the United States had accomplished what was once thought impossible, or even folly.


That one image of Neil Armstrong stands in contrast to the more posed pictures of astronaut crews that invariably show Mr. Armstrong in an expressionless gaze. Here, his great accomplishment is nearly complete. He and Mr. Aldrin still needed to blast off from the moon, rendezvous with their companion Mike Collins waiting in lunar orbit, make their way back to Earth and dive through Earth's atmosphere at supersonic speed. But Mr. Armstrong had the right to feel content. Earlier that day, and only seconds before the lunar landing, Mr. Armstrong took over from the autopilot that was directing the lunar lander to a dangerous boulder field that would have spelled doom for the astronaut duo — and likely the American space program. As he piloted the spacecraft to a safer spot, the fuel drained dangerously low; only 20 seconds remained when they finally touched down.

Years earlier, as Mr. Armstrong tested an early mock-up of a lunar landing craft here on Earth, it spiraled out of control. He ejected seconds before the craft crashed, parachuting to safety, and was back at work later that day. In his first spaceflight, Gemini 8, he and crewmate Dave Scott were docked to an unmanned spacecraft when the two craft began spinning head over heels, threatening a crew blackout. Mr. Armstrong calmly undocked and safely guided his spacecraft back to Earth.

Mr. Armstrong's candid smile inside the lunar lander after his historic moon walk signified many challenges overcome, the most memorable being the first human steps on another world. It's an image that sticks with me as a symbol of great things accomplished, and accomplished by a humble man of few words. Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong — your name and accomplishments will long be remembered.

Jim O'Leary is a longtime employee of the Maryland Science Center and the co-host of "Skywatch" on WYPR-FM. His email is