Neil Armstrong was always, first and foremost, an airplane guy. In an aviation career spanning more than six decades, the Apollo 11 commander, who died August 25 at the age of 82, spent only eight years as an astronaut. The rest of the time he was a naval aviator, test pilot, bureaucrat, professor, aerospace executive, and consultant.
The public’s focus on his 21 hours on the moon in 1969 seemed to puzzle Armstrong, although of course it shouldn’t have. He will forever be known as our first extraterrestrial explorer, whether he saw himself that way or not. In 2005, he lamented to 60 Minutes interviewer Ed Bradley, “I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”
Even the title of “first man on the moon” seemed an uncomfortable fit. He and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the lunar surface together, and Armstrong was always quick to acknowledge that Apollo 11 was a team effort. That was his style—never inflating his own accomplishments, always trying to tell it straight, unvarnished, to say only what the facts would support.
The characterization of him as a recluse was exaggerated. He wasn’t Howard Hughes, growing his fingernails long. He appeared in public often, but never came through with the kind of showy, emotive performance some people may have preferred. In a press conference following the first lunar landing, a reporter asked the Apollo 11 crew “How do you propose to restore some normalcy to your private lives in the years ahead?” Armstrong answered, with a wry smile, “It kind of depends on you.” In the 40-plus years that followed, the press never did stop asking him, What was it really like?
The astronaut’s family called him “a reluctant American hero” and issued the following statement after his death: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
See the gallery below for a recap of Armstong’s career as pilot and astronaut, in his own words.
Pictured above: Armstrong in the cockpit of the X-15 in 1961, a year before becoming an astronaut.
Armstrong at Age Six
"I think [my] interest [in aviation] goes back farther than I can remember. My father tells me about going out to the Cleveland airport when I was two years old to see the 1932 air races, so I must have been a staunch aviation fan before I was even conscious of it. It was my father, also, who took me for my first airplane ride. I was six years old and we flew in a Ford Trimotor – the old “tin goose” – which was carrying passengers at Warren, Ohio. We were supposed to be at church, I think, but we sneaked off and later my mother caught us, just because of the guilty, and probably excited, looks on our faces. By the time I was nine, I was building model airplanes. They had become, I suppose, almost an obsession with me."
— From "First on the Moon" (Little, Brown, 1970)
Family photo from neilarmstronginfo.com.