Today his family held a private memorial service for Neil Armstrong, who died last week at the age of 82. I’ve read a lot of the tributes to the first man to walk on the moon that have been published in the past week, and have a little to add.
I never met Neil Armstrong, but I’ve always looked up to him. As a kid I paid a lot of attention to the space program, and when my dad was transferred to Houston in mid-1966 I started to feel like I was a part of it since I lived where the astronauts lived, but I really don’t remember Armstrong’s name sticking in my mind until it came time for Apollo 11. I was 12 years old that night in 1969: I was on the floor at home in front of our family’s first color television, straining to comprehend through the static-y images and voices just what was happening as the Eagle landed, and then as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the moon. Although that summer I was laser-focused on making the Little League all-star team (I didn’t), as I sat on the floor that night I really felt like I had done something great, had somehow helped make that moon landing possible.
When the ticker tape parades I saw on television were over, Armstrong faded from view; it turns out, that’s what he wanted. And that’s a big part of why I’ve respected him over the years. I realize now that Neil Armstrong probably wasn’t any braver than any of the other astronauts for making that flight—every other astronaut wanted the assignment, and many lobbied for it to have the chance for a prominent place in history. Although he’s been highly praised as being among the finest pilots at NASA, his colleagues weren’t slouches at the stick. But Armstrong wasn’t after glory or recognition: he wanted to fly, to do new things; he wanted to do his job, and he didn’t want to become the center of attention.
He personified the American ideal of the strong, silent type: the guy who was the best at what he did and loved doing it, who wanted to make a contribution to society, who didn’t want to brag about it later or feel like he was taking too much credit. Highly talented, well educated, capable and confident, with a sense of adventure and a sense of humor, and not an overinflated sense of himself. I have always been proud that it was that kind of man, that kind of American, who took the symbolic step into the future on behalf of the rest of us, from all the scientists and engineers who made it happen to all the 12-year-olds who felt like they were making that first step themselves.
So today—ironically, the day of an actual Blue Moon—on the day his family says farewell to him, I want to say thank you to Neil Armstrong for his part in opening up the future for our species, and for being the kind of man and leader in whom our country can take quiet pride. And I plan to follow his family’s honest and good-humored suggestion about how to honor him:
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.