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  Apollo 11 Anniversary

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Armstrong's Code

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Armstrong, front row, left, and other members of the Challenger disaster panel watch as a picture showing ice on the space shuttle appears on the TV screen. (Corbis)
His most startling depature from the norm had come that same year, when he debuted as a TV pitchman for Chrysler during the Super Bowl. There he was, against a stark, black backdrop, hands in his pockets, saying, ''In the Apollo program, I acquired a respect for the ability of Chrysler Corporation engineering to help solve the incredible problems of space travel. Now I've seen what they've done for cars.'' As he talked, the lights came up to reveal a field of cars.

An Armstrong relative says Neil's father, a confirmed GM man, expressed surprise at the move, as did many friends and neighbors who had worked to shield him from public attention

Armstrong defended the appearance, for which he received an undisclosed sum. ''I've worked in some commercial arrangements off and on, on kind of a modest basis,'' he told the Cincinnati Post . ''I've taken the position that, if the right situation came along, where I thought I could be of significant help . . . and it would not jeopardize my honesty . . .'' He praised Chrysler's ''long history of solid engineering,'' adding, ''I have to be honest and say it was kind of a challenge to try to help Chrysler get out of the hole. They lost a bundle of money last year. And I think it's very important to the country as a whole that we not be a one-automobile-company country.''

The Chrysler campaign was less than a success, according to Conrad ''The TV ad was a real flop,'' he says. The fee for Armstrong's services has never been revealed, but Conrad adds, ''I guarantee you, they didn't get him cheap. Neil's a pretty good businessman.''

Which is another aspect of Armstrong's code. While no one could accuse him of exploiting his first-on-the-moon status to its maximum earning potential, Armstrong has prospered quietly. He is chairman of the board of AIL Systems, a defense electronics company in New York, is a member of seven other boards of directors and previously has served on numerous boards, including that of United Airlines' parent company. He played a major role as head of a technical committee, Conrad says, providing an engineering analysis that affected a major investment by United.

Since 1989, he has also served on the board of the Thiokol Corp. (now Cordant Technologies Inc.), which produces the solid-fuel rocket boosters for the space shuttle. A design flaw in the boosters caused the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which killed the crew of seven. Armstrong was appointed to the presidential commission that investigated the disaster. Robert Hotz, another commission member, told reporters it was Armstrong who had led a fight to couch the report's findings in clear, easily understood, nontechnical language.

Armstrong has materialized in other select venues over the years: returning to the University of Cincinnati to give the commencement address in 1982; at a scientific congressin Mainz, Germany; at a Sarah Vaughan concert in 1988, where he narrated Aaron Copland's ''Lincoln Portrait'' and conducted a Sousa march; throwing out the first ball at a baseball game in Houston; and at an information technology symposium in Athens, Greece, last summer, where he noted that today's cheap laptops dramatically surpass the technology of Apollo 11.

His personal life has remained largely invisible to outsiders. friends note that he seems to be in fine health these days.

In 1994 he and Jan quietly ended their 38-year marriage. They had the judge seal the record temporarily, attracting minimum press attention. While the divorce records did not reveal his net worth, Jan's share of the real and personal property totaled about $2.24 million, plus additional real estate of unspecified value and spousal support payments of up to $6,000 a month.

A short time later, Armstrong married Carol Knight, 15 years his junior, and moved into her home in Indian Hills, an affluent suburb of Cincinnati. Friends describe her as chatty, very friendly. ''She's a super gal,'' says Conrad, who bumped into the Armstrongs a few weeks ago at a Beverly Hills party. ''We had a nice conversation'' catching up on each other's activities, he says. ''I guess Neil is doing a lot of traveling.''

Perhaps the most reliable sightings of Armstrong occur every few years on significant Apollo anniversaries, when he appears with fellow astronauts for ritual NASA events. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins have tentatively agreed to attend several gatherings in the next two weeks, including July 20 appearances in Washington. NASA says there is no plan for Armstrong to participate in a formal press conference. At the last one in 1989, a reporter accused him of having ''disappeared off the face of the Earth.'' Armstrong's reply combined a touch slyness and mock bewilderment: ''Gosh, I didn't know that I did that. I was here in Washington for a time, running the aeronautics program of NASA. And then I went back to the university and they — the folks at the university — would be very surprised that they're considered to be "off the face of the Earth.'''

When pressed, he added evenly, ''Well, I was pleased doing the things I was doing. That's the sum and substance of it.''

The futuristic white dome rises from a green hillside peppered with dandelions, hard by Interstate 75 as it sweeps past Wapakoneta. The Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum is temporarily closed to make ready for the upcoming Apollo anniversary. Past the workmen, the sawdust, the exhibits, the shelves of model airplane kits, shuttle replicas and mission patches, two of Armstrong's old spacesuits, one from Gemini and one from Apollo, stand at ease around a long table in a storeroom, as if on a coffee break. They are getting restuffed.

Overseeing the work is John Zwez, a relative of the Armstrong family who runs the museum, funded in part by local residents and operated by the private, nonprofit Ohio Historical Society. ''We're inundated constantly with people wanting to talk to Neil,'' he says. ''Sometimes they think I'm him, or ask if he's here . . . He wouldn't have time to live'' if he tried to deal with all the requests.

Zwez, a generation younger than Armstrong, grew up hearing tales of Neil's exploits at Armstrong family reunions. One recurring theme: ''He's always been the way he is. The moon landing didn't change him.''

About the most animated Zwez ever saw Armstrong was on the day Neil helped his parents move into a retirement community. ''He was giving the museum some of his trophies and awards. He met me there at the house and helped me load up the truck,' Zwez remembers. ''He actually cracked a joke about politics that time.''

Armstrong's visits to Wapakoneta have become rarer since 1990, when both of his parents died. Zwez last saw him in 1994, around the time of the 25th Apollo anniversary, when Neil attended an air show in the area and stopped by the museum for about 30 minutes, long enough for Zwez to introduce him to the staff.

It took White House pressure to persuade Armstrong to attend the museum's grand opening, according to one published account. Armstrong skipped the parade and other festivities in his honor here in 1994, although he made an appearance at the White House with President Clinton a few days later. For the most part, the town takes such slights philosophically. ''We realize that the same [dates] we want him to come here, he's obligated to make public appearances for NASA ,'' Zwez says. But a few people resent these absences and argue that the town shouldn't stage a celebration if Armstrong isn't going to show up. ''I disagree with that,' Zwez says. ''When he passes away, we're still going to celebrate the day he landed on the moon.''

Still, the minder of the flame finds it tricky keeping the museum current. His most recent photograph of Armstrong, Zwez says, is five years old, taken at a film festival in Italy. ''I wouldn't think of asking him' for a new one. Family and friends who stop in from time to time just shrug and say, ''You know how Neil is.''

Nearer downtown, past the strip mall and the Dairy Queen, is Neil's old neighborhood. Blume High has been converted to apartments, but otherwise the area has changed little since his childhood. His boyhood home at the corner of Benton and Buchanan is a well-kept two-story clapboard painted crisp gray and white, with a flag whipping in the wind and a clanking plaque that reads: ''Eagle's Landing, Boyhood Home of Neil Armstrong, First Man to Walk on the Moon.''

Karen Tullis, an elementary school principal, lives there and maintains it as a kind of shrine. She knew nothing of the house's history when she bought it 10 years ago, but she has joined the ranks of the Armstrong volunteers, the unbidden protectors of his special place in history. ''It's been a great opportunity . . .'' she says. ''I've met a lot of people as a result.''

It almost goes without saying, but Neil Armstrong, so far, isn't one of them.

Kathy Sawyer covers space science and technology for The Post. Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this article.

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