Neil Armstrong

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Neil_armstrong.jpgI had a chance to meet and talk with him briefly once, at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight, at Kitty Hawk in 2003. The crowd was full of aviation icons, from Chuck Yeager to John Glenn, but even among them Armstrong had a special status and aura. I think that reflected not just his unique role in human history but also his comportment before and after the Apollo mission.

Before he had been: a small town Ohio boy; an Eagle Scout; a certified pilot as of age 15; an aerospace engineer; a naval aviator who flew combat missions in Korea; a test pilot who was in the X-15 among many dozens of aircraft types he eventually flew; and a pilot and commander on two Gemini missions.

This was the ideal American self-image -- as reflected before him, in the aviation realm, by Charles Lindbergh.

What came afterward, in contrast to Lindbergh's later years, was a life lived deliberately away from the limelight and with scrupulous attention to avoiding any controversy or indignity that might reflect upon the space program of which he'd played such a crucial part. He went back to Ohio and to academia; he avoided direct or indirect involvement in politics; he was careful about his business engagements; and he seemed always to be aware that he stood for more than himself. I saw people sheepishly ask him for autographs at the Wright Brothers centennial event. He politely declined -- as he had for years, after he learned that they were being re-sold by scalpers. I don't mean to idealize him; I don't know the details of his life well enough to speak with authority, and I'm sure that like everyone he had his contradictions. But the face and example he presented to the public seemed wholly admirable.

And about that famous strange-sounding sentence: I have always heard that he believed he had said, and in any case that he intended to say, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." I choose to believe him.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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