Neil Armstrong Took One Small Step, Then Made a Giant Retreat Into Private Life

Apollo 11, the historic eight day mission to the moon, which took place from July 16-24, 1969, and made astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin household names, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the most famous man on the planet by taking a short walk off of it. Since then he's tried to live with that fact, and also live it down.

Only rarely -- on major anniversary dates, like today -- does he show up on television, and then only fleetingly. He hasn't leveraged his fame for higher office or some grand cause, nor has he sold it willy-nilly.

If the subject is Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon tends to turn churlish. He will defer, deflect or refuse to answer. When his little home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, sought to honor him with a parade on the 25th anniversary of his moonwalk, Armstrong sent his regrets. He once pleaded to a newspaper reporter, 10 years after his feat: "How long must it take before I can cease to be known as a spaceman?"

As if such a thing were possible. Or even desirable.

It's not fair to call Armstrong a "recluse," as many accounts of his life after Apollo 11 invariably have. He's no cosmic J.D. Salinger or Howard Hughes, shunning the world out of spite or madness. Armstrong makes the occasional public appearance and speech, as he did Sunday at the Smithsonian and as he will do again Monday at NASA's official commemoration of the moon landing. He's also appeared in two NASA video productions over the past five years.

What's more, after resisting would-be biographers for years, he finally caved to his family's prodding and sat for more than 50 hours of interviews with Auburn University historian James R. Hansen for a 2005 biography, "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong."

Yet for the 40th anniversary, Armstrong has once again carefully rationed himself. He told planners at the Smithsonian and NASA that he would speak at their events, but not as the keynoter, not at length and only in conjunction with other Apollo alumni. A book-signing at the Air and Space Museum featuring his Apollo 11 crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, was out of the question (Armstrong stopped signing anything some years ago when brokers began peddling bogus signatures on the Internet). Media interviews? Not a chance. "He's always been this way," says one person involved in planning the events.

Carol Armstrong says her husband averages about 10 interview requests per month. He turns them all down, usually without reply (he did not respond to a request for this article). "I think he thinks it's all been said before," Carol says from their home near Cincinnati. A decade ago, when The Post sought an interview, Armstrong e-mailed his regrets, adding with Garbo-like brevity: "I am comfortable with my level of public discourse."

Those who know Armstrong say his behavior has been consistent over the arc of his 78 years. Even before the world insisted on lionizing him, he was his own man, faithful to his standards: Reject personal glory. Avoid focusing on the self. Keep what's private private. Until Hansen revealed it, some of Armstrong's closest working associates never knew that Armstrong and his first wife, Janet, had a 2-year-old daughter who died of a brain tumor a few years before Armstrong went into space.

"Neil has a very strict sense of what's appropriate to be involved in, and has since he was a boy," says Hansen, a former NASA historian who spent nearly three years corresponding with Armstrong before winning his cooperation on the book. Armstrong has such a hard time speaking about himself in the first person, Hansen says, that "he felt he couldn't write an autobiography or a memoir."

Adds Hansen: "Neil was very much the same person after Apollo 11 as he was before it. The pragmatism, the modesty, the shyness were there from an early age. I don't see any radical changes in (him) throughout his life."

In his limited public utterances, Armstrong has always turned the subject away from himself. He usually deflects credit to the 400,000 people who built and maintained the vehicles and managed the bureaucracy that enabled him and Aldrin to reach the moon.

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