Astronaut Neil Armstrong is mourned at Washington National Cathedral

September 13, 2012

On Thursday, the last man to walk on the moon took the podium at Washington National Cathedral and honored his friend, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk the moon.

“Fate looked down kindly when she chose Neil to venture to another world and to have the opportunity to look back from space. It could have been another. But it wasn’t,” said Eugene Cernan, who visited the moon in 1972 as commander of Apollo 17. “No one — no one, but no one — could have accepted the responsibility of his remarkable accomplishment with more dignity and more grace than Neil Armstrong. Neil, wherever you are up there . . . as you soar through the heavens, beyond where even eagles dare to go, you can now finally put out your hand and touch the face of God. Farewell, my friend.”

Hundreds of mourners filled the cathedral to celebrate Armstrong’s life. Among them were Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, the other Apollo 11 astronauts who journeyed to the moon on July 20, 1969.

Members of the Armstrong clan, who previously convened for a private ceremony near their home base in Cincinnati, also attended, including Armstrong’s wife, Carol, and sons Mark and Rick.

Armstrong, 82, died Aug. 25 after what the family described as “complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.”

All the speakers during the service praised Armstrong as a reluctant hero. They cited his Midwestern roots and said his upbringing in Ohio grounded him as a humble person. Armstrong, they said, will be forever known for placing his feet on the moon first, but neither he nor his friends felt like that superlative captured his love of the Navy and for being a test pilot of super-fast and dangerous aircraft.

As proud as he was of his moon walk, the mourners said, Armstrong always felt like he was merely one among many who made the moment happen.

The memorial service, which precedes Armstrong’s burial at sea on Friday, also featured tributes by Charles F. Bolden Jr., the administrator of NASA, and John W. Snow, the former Treasury secretary who was friends with Armstrong.

Singer Diana Krall, wearing a golden moon necklace, delivered a plaintive version of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Bolden, a former astronaut, recalled attending last fall’s ceremony in which Armstrong and former senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), also a former astronaut, received the Congressional Gold Medal. It was Armstrong’s final public appearance in Washington, Bolden said.

“He spoke not on his own behalf,” Bolden said, “but accepted the medal, ‘on behalf of [our] fellow Apollo teammates, all those who played a role in expanding human presence outward from Earth, and all those who played a role in expanding human knowledge of the solar system and beyond.”

Snow, the former chief executive of the CSX railroad system who served as Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, remembered Armstrong as an agonizingly deliberate golf partner.

“You’d wait for him to putt. He’d survey the line to the hole. He’d measure the dew on the green,” Snow recalled. “You sometimes wondered, ‘Neil, are you ever going to hit the ball?’ He couldn’t help but be the engineer.”

Collins, the Apollo 11 command ship pilot who wrote a memoir about their flight, read a prayer, thanking “the creator of the universe” for “your servant Neil Armstrong, who with courage and humility first set foot upon the moon.”

In her homily, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde analyzed why Armstrong was so defiantly humble. People always asked Armstrong, she said, why he didn’t bask in his triumph.

“‘Because,’ he said. ‘I didn’t deserve it,’ ” Budde quoted Armstrong as saying, before she added: “This was not, I am convinced, an expression of Midwestern modesty, an attempt to minimize his passionate ambition . . . it was simply the truth: No one goes to the moon alone. No one accomplishes anything of lasting value in any realm of human endeavor alone.”

After the service, one of Armstrong’s fellow astronauts, David Scott, who flew with him on Gemini 8 in Earth’s low orbit in 1966, remembered how their spacecraft went berserk, and they almost died.

If it weren’t for Armstrong’s ability to solve problems and help get them back to Earth safely, Scott said with a laugh, “We’d still be up there.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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