A taciturn engineer and test pilot who was never at ease with his fame, Mr. Armstrong was among the most heroized Americans of the 1960s Cold War space race. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he is famous for saying as he stepped on the moon, an indelible quotation beamed to a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions.
Twelve years after the Soviet satellite Sputnik reached space first, deeply alarming U.S. officials, and after President John F. Kennedy in 1961 declared it a national priority to land an American on the moon “before this decade is out,” Mr. Armstrong, a former Navy fighter pilot, commanded the NASA crew that finished the job.
His trip to the moon — particularly the hair-raising final descent from lunar orbit to the treacherous surface — was history’s boldest feat of aviation. Yet what the experience meant to him, what he thought of it all on an emotional level, he mostly kept to himself.
Like his boyhood idol, transatlantic aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Mr. Armstrong learned how uncomfortable the intrusion of global acclaim can be. And just as Lindbergh had done, he eventually shied away from the public and avoided the popular media.
In time, he became almost mythical.
Mr. Armstrong was “exceedingly circumspect” from a young age, and the glare of international attention “just deepened a personality trait that he already had in spades,” said his authorized biographer, James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian.
In an interview, Hansen, author of “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” cited another “special sensitivity” that made the first man on the moon a stranger on Earth.
“I think Neil knew that this glorious thing he helped achieve for the country back in the summer of 1969 — glorious for the entire planet, really — would inexorably be diminished by the blatant commercialism of the modern world,” Hansen said.
“And I think it’s a nobility of his character that he just would not take part in that.”
A love of flying
The perilous, 195-hour journey that defined Mr. Armstrong’s place in history — from the liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, to the capsule’s splashdown in the Pacific eight days later — riveted the world’s attention, transcending cultural, political and generational divides in an era of profound social tumult and change in the United States.
As Mr. Armstrong, a civilian, and his crewmates, Air Force pilots Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, hurtled through space, television viewers around the globe witnessed a drama of spellbinding technology and daring. About a half-billion people listened to the climactic landing and watched a flickering video feed of the moonwalk.