Neil Armstrong

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.