Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, dies at 82

obituary The astronaut and enduring icon of the space age is remembered today as a genuine American hero, the ultimate "right stuff" test pilot who preferred privacy to fame.

Neil Alden Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and an enduring icon of the the space age for taking "one giant leap for mankind," died today after complications from cardiovascular surgery. He was 82.

"We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away," his family said in a statement. "Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, and friend.

"Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.

Neil Armstrong's official NASA portrait. NASA

"He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits."

On July 20, 1969, Armstrong stepped off the footpad of the Apollo 11 lunar lander Eagle and onto the surface of the moon, uttering 11 words -- 12 if you include a dropped or garbled "a" -- that instantly became synonymous with the triumph of the Apollo moon program and America's victory in the space race with the Soviet Union.

"That's one small step for (a) man," he said, "one giant leap for mankind."

Back on Earth 238,000 miles away, millions of people around the world shared that historic first step in grainy black-and-white television and heard his words through mission control in Houston. It was the ultimate live shot, watched by more than a billion people.

"He told me he wanted to be sure that what he said included everybody in the whole world," his mother, Viola, once said of Armstrong's first words from the surface, adding that he came up with the phrase at the last minute.

"He told me it was only shortly before he stepped down on the moon that the words came to him," she said.

Armstrong and crewmate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin spent two-and-a-half hours on the surface, collecting 47 pounds of moon rocks and soil before blasting off and rejoining command module pilot Michael Collins in lunar orbit.

Returning to Earth, Armstrong was celebrated as a hero and received decorations from 17 countries, along with dozens of medals, awards and other honors. He was 38 years old.

"Whenever I look at the moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we were farther away from Earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone," Aldrin said in a statement. "Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us.

"I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history."

Apollo 11 Flight Director Gene Kranz said Armstrong's quiet competence and willingness to take the ultimate risk for the greater good marked him as a genuine American hero.

"I didn't know that Neil was going go be targeted for the first lunar landing, but when they named him what immediately came to mind the name (Charles) Lindbergh," Kranz said in an interview Saturday. "Because he was the kind of person that you want for that first-of-a-kind, very harrowing mission.

"As we got closer to the launch, the flight directors and the flight control team became acutely aware of the risks of this thing that we were calling the first lunar landing... As we moved into that frame of mind, I really thought of Neil in somewhat of a different fashion. I thought of him as a Jimmy Dolittle, the kind of guy who was willing to take the risk for all."

Recalling Armstrong, Kranz summed the feelings of many in the close-knit space community, saying "he was just an absolute gentleman. He was the kind of guy you want as a hero."

Added Collins in a NASA release: "He was the best and I will miss him terribly."

Armstrong left NASA shortly after Apollo 11 and devoted his life to mostly private pursuits in engineering and aviation. He made no attempt to take advantage of his fame, routinely declining interview requests and seldom appearing in public.

"As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life," his family said Saturday.

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, speaking at a dinner marking the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's three-orbit Mercury flight on Feb. 20, 2012. NASA/Bill Ingalls

"While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.

"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."

Armstrong is survived by his wife, two sons, a step son and step daughter, 10 grandchildren, a brother and a sister.

Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930, Armstrong's love of flying began at an early age. His father took him on his first airplane ride when he was 6. The young Armstrong was a voracious reader and clearly fascinated by flying, earning membership in the American Rocketry Society.

He was a frequent figure at the Wapakoneta airport, chatting with airplane mechanics and learning everything he could about flying. He paid for flying lessons and earned his pilot's license before he was old enough to legally drive a car.

Like many future astronauts, he attended Purdue University and earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering before moving on to the University of Southern California and earning a master's in aerospace engineering.

During the Korean War, he flew 78 combat missions for the Navy, once bailing out after nursing a severely damaged jet back from enemy territory.

He then spent seven years as a test pilot, including pioneering flights in the X-15 rocket plane, before being selected by NASA to join the astronaut corps in 1962. He ultimately logged flying time in 200 different types of aircraft, including jets, rockets, helicopters and gliders.

Apollo 11 crewmate Collins, writing in his book "Carrying the Fire," described Armstrong as a man who "savors" decisions, "rolling them around on his tongue like a fine wine and swallowing at the very last moment. Neil is a classy guy, and I can't offhand think of a better choice to be first man on the moon."

Armstrong demonstrated that calm under pressure during his flight as commander of the two-man Gemini 8 mission in 1966.

The Apollo 11 crew (left to right): Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.

He and astronaut David Scott carried out the first orbital docking, with Armstrong guiding the nose of the Gemini capsule into an attachment mechanism on an Agena target satellite.

But shortly after, a jammed rocket thruster on the Gemini spacecraft sent the capsule into a wild tumble and only cool thinking by Armstrong and Scott prevented a disaster. The astronauts made a successful emergency descent to a Pacific Ocean splashdown.

But nothing compared to the white-knuckle Apollo 11 moon landing, a do-or-die feat of precision flying with little margin for error.

"It was the most demanding, the systems were the most heavily loaded, there were the largest number of unknowns, things were being taxed to the limit and it was most challenging from a personal standpoint," he once said.

"Aviators always like to make nice approaches and smooth landings and that's what we were after and we were fortunate to have that. The other parts were exciting. There were no parts of the entire voyage that were ho hum. Every minute was exciting. Although time dims the memories somewhat, it certainly dims not the enthusiasm or excitement."

The dramatic nature of that first moon landing was captured in the tense dialogue between mission control in Houston and the astronauts aboard the Eagle.

Eagle: "Forty feet, down two and a half, kicking up some dust ... 30 feet, two and a half down ... faint shadow... four forward, four forward, drifting to the right a little ... six ... down a half."

Houston: "30 seconds (of fuel remaining)."

Eagle: "Forward. Drifting right ... contact light! OK, engine stop. ACA out of detent. Modes control both auto, descent engine command override off. Engine arm off."

Houston: "We copy you down, Eagle."

Armstrong: "Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed."

Houston: "Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."

A few minutes later, Armstrong provided a bit more information:

"Houston, that may have seemed like a very long final phase," Armstrong radioed. "The auto targeting was taking us right into a football-field sized crater, with a large number of big boulders and rocks ... and it required flying manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good landing area."

Armstrong was first to venture out onto the moon's surface, followed by Aldrin. Initial plans called for the lunar module pilot -- Aldrin -- to be first on the moon but that policy later was changed. Collins wrote that Armstrong, as commander of the mission, made the decision to exit first.

Armstrong's shadow is visible in the foreground as he snapped a picture of the Apollo 11 lunar lander in the distance. NASA

In his book "Men From Earth," Aldrin wrote: "We'd both seen the earlier mission plans that had the LM (lunar module) pilot exiting first, but we'd also seen the more recent draft procedures that left the issue unresolved."

Ultimately, Aldrin wrote, Donald "Deke" Slayton, chief of the astronaut office, made the decision that Armstrong would be first on the moon.

At a news conference marking the 25th anniversary of the landing, Armstrong said the decision was never his to make.

"Well, both of these gentlemen have written on that subject and I haven't, so I'll just tell you that, although they may or may not have known what my feelings, in fact, were at the time, that I had zero input, no input whatever, into that decision."

In any case, Aldrin and Armstrong spent two hours and 32 minutes walking on the lunar surface setting out experiments and collecting 47 pounds of rock and lunar soil.

During an interview 10 years later, Armstrong tried to describe his feelings when he and Aldrin planted an American flag in the dusty lunar soil.

"Feelings are an extremely difficult thing to portray," he said. "I do remember the scene very vividly. We didn't have a strong nationalistic feeling at that time. I think we felt more that is was a venture of mankind and we were delighted to be part of the country that made it happen."

Armstrong said his experiences on the moon did not change his basic character. But he said it did change the way he looked at Earth's satellite.

"I used to see a flat disc in the sky and now I see places that I've been and can relate to," he said.

As for the significance of the Apollo 11 flight, Armstrong said such judgments were best left to historians .

"Well, it's human nature to adapt very quickly to new situations," he said at the news conference before the 20th anniversary of the moon landing. "We sort of are amazed by, enthralled by, then bored by, and eventually forget some new things, usually within one revolution of the Earth around the sun.

"That's the way humans are. And so it's of great surprise to me that so many people remember something that happened 20 years ago."

Armstrong left the astronaut corps shortly after the Apollo 11 mission and briefly served as Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics at NASA Headquarters in Washington, coordinating aeronautics research and technology.

After leaving NASA, he served as professor of aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati from 1971 to 1979 and then served as chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc., in Charlottesville, Va., between 1982 and 1992.

In 1986, Armstrong served as vice chairman of the presidential commission that investigated the 1986 Challenger disaster, a role he would reprise in 2003 as a member of the panel that investigated the loss of the shuttle Columbia.

He was a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the Royal Aeronautical Society and an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

His decorations include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the Explorers Club Medal, the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Harmon International Aviation Trophy.

He also held the Federation Aeronautique Internationale's Gold Space Medal, the American Astronautical Society Flight Achievement Award and the Robert J. Collier Trophy.

"I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing," Aldrin said. "Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit."

About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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