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PD Editorial: Neil Armstrong and one small step into history

  • Neil Armstrong casting the first human shadow on the lunar surface in this July 20, 1969 NASA photo. Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012. He was 82. (NASA via The New York Times) -- EDITORIAL USE ONLY

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot in a place where no man had gone before.

If you ask anyone over 50 years old, it's a near certainty that they'll remember exactly where they were when Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon.

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe watched on TV as Armstrong stepped from the landing craft to the lunar surface and said 11 eloquent and unforgettable words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

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Armstrong, who died Saturday at age 82, will be remembered alongside history's great explorers — a Ferdinand Magellan of the space age. He also will be remembered for his humility. After the ticker-tape parades, a state dinner and a world tour with his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts — Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — Armstrong stayed away from the limelight. He wasn't interested in celebrity or profiting from his historic moment.

He never published a memoir, and asked about the lunar mission, the self-effacing astronaut inevitably called it "the culmination of the work of 300,000 to 400,000 people over a decade." Armstrong described himself as a "white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer."

But he also was a talented aviator, one of the daredevil test pilots chronicled in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." And his composed response was credited with avoiding disaster on his only other space flight. Gemini 8 in 1966, which made an emergency return to Earth after a malfunction. He again took the controls at the last minute to find a safe landing spot on the moon with fuel running short.

In meeting President John F. Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon "before the end of the decade," the Apollo 11 mission was a Cold War triumph and a welcome respite from the turmoil of the 1960s — the Vietnam War, inner-city riots and the assassinations of Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. But it was more than that: The lunar landing was one of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century and a pivotal moment in human history. As the late author Arthur C. Clarke wrote of the Apollo 11 mission, "Now history and fiction have become inexorably intertwined."

Eleven other men walked on the moon before NASA canceled its lunar exploration program in 1972, shifting focus to the space shuttle and orbital space stations. Two years ago, Armstrong joined several other Apollo-era astronauts in urging the Obama administration to reconsider its decision to put off a return to the moon and rely more on private industry for space exploration.

As the Curiosity mission unfolds on Mars, the public's attention is again focusing on space exploration and the possibilities that go with saying, "If we can put a man on the moon .<TH>.<TH>."


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