Neil Armstrong, Reluctant Hero

July 17, 1994|By NEIL McALEER

On July 20, 1969, Neil Alden Armstrong, a shy, soft-spoken test pilot from Wapakoneta, Ohio -- the all-American boy personified -- stepped off the ladder and took his first "small step" on the moon that symbolized a "giant leap" for humanity.

After a dangerous descent and historic touchdown -- the "moment of significance" for Mr. Armstrong -- the press speculated on who thought up the astronaut's historic words, "That's one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind." Mr. Armstrong was so shy and uncomfortable in front of cameras and microphones, often searching for the next word during long silences, that some reporters doubted the phrase was his. But it was.

"I did think about it," Mr. Armstrong said after the mission. "I decided what the words would be while we were on the lunar surface just prior to leaving the LM [Lunar Module]."

His "one small step" idea came from a children's game, known as "Mother, May I?" where players request permission to take various steps forward, and "Mother" then grants so many "baby steps" or "giant steps" and so on. Neil Armstrong's first "small step" on the Moon apparently was approved by Mother Earth.

Mr. Armstrong has been the reluctant hero from the beginning. This was a manifestation of his natural personality, as well as the very real concerns of guarding his private life and protecting his family. But the other important reason is how he views history and his place in it.

"The fact is, the whole [Apollo] program by design and by detail is the product of a lot of people's efforts. . . . It's not the same sort of thing as when Lindbergh crossed the ocean," he said before he was chosen to command Apollo 11. "This is the product of the desire of a whole society to do something. And there will be people who are identified by name to do it, but in this case it won't be the same."

Mr. Armstrong will celebrate his 64th birthday in August, just weeks after the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. For the past quarter-century, Mr. Armstrong has shunned publicity whenever possible, although he has made appearances at previous anniversary celebrations when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration asked him, and he has served on several important commissions, including chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the Peace Corps in the early '70s and vice chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in 1986.

Despite such public service on occasion, Mr. Armstrong is a loner at heart and an enigma even to people who have worked with him.

"How do you propose to restore some normalcy to your private lives in the years ahead?" a reporter asked Mr. Armstrong and his crew after Apollo 11's flight.

"It kind of depends on you," Mr. Armstrong answered, which was a roundabout way of saying, if the press left him alone, he could reclaim his private life.

"He was never comfortable with the role of public figure," says a NASA spokesman, "and avoided the limelight whenever he could."

"But it's not fair to call him a recluse, although he does avoid situations he thinks are going to be overblown or are trying to make him a central figure.

"Neil was probably naive enough to think that he could fly the first mission to land on the moon and then go back to a normal life like everyone else. That's what he did as an aviator and test pilot, after all. When he flew the X-15 and other experimental aircraft, for example, he did his job and went home."

After the summer of '69, it would never be that way again. Mr. Armstrong was soon overwhelmed by how much the publicity was encroaching on his private life.

In mid-August 1969, after 18 days of quarantine and debriefing, the Apollo 11 crew -- Mr. Armstrong, Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins -- was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City, fireworks in Chicago, then a formal state dinner in Los Angeles. A few weeks later, they began a whirlwind world tour that took them to 22 countries.

In July 1970, a year after lunar touchdown, Neil Armstrong took the position of deputy associate administrator at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for managing agency research program in aeronautics. This was the field he loved and in which he earned his undergraduate and master's degrees.

Even though this position kept him out of the limelight, and other Apollo astronauts flew to the moon and entered the media spotlights, the publicity demands on Mr. Armstrong did not subside. A year after the moon landing, his fan mail was still heavy.

The same man who avoided publicity also answered his fan mail conscientiously. It was a duty to him, part of the job. He spent three hours each day answering correspondence -- on his own time, not the government's. He even answered mail during the world tour.

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