Astronaut Neil Armstrong made “one giant leap for mankind” with a small step onto the moon, and his first words after the feat are etched in history books and the memories of the spellbound millions who heard them in a live broadcast.
Armstrong, who had bypass surgery earlier this month, died Saturday at age 82 from what his family said were complications of heart procedures. His family didn’t say where he died; he had lived in suburban Cincinnati.
He commanded the historic landing of the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon on July 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century’s scientific expeditions and becoming the first man to walk on the moon.
An estimated 600 million people – a fifth of the world’s population – watched and listened to the landing, the largest audience for any single event in history.
Parents huddled with their children in front of the family television, mesmerized by what they were witnessing. Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to see the moonwalk.
Television-less campers in California ran to their cars to catch the word on the radio. Boy Scouts at a camp in Michigan watched on a generator-powered television supplied by a parent.
Afterward, people walked out of their homes and gazed at the moon, in awe of what they had just seen. Others peeked through telescopes in hopes of spotting the astronauts.
Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were given ticker-tape parades in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and later made a 22-nation world tour.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong famously said. He insisted later that he had said “a” before man, but said he, too, couldn’t hear it in the version that went to the world.
Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA’s forerunner and an astronaut, the modest Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program. “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in 2000 in one of his rare public appearances. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
Rice U. historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Armstrong for NASA’s oral history project, said Armstrong fit every requirement the space agency needed for the first man to walk on moon, especially because of his engineering skills and the way he handled celebrity by shunning it. “I think his genius was in his reclusiveness,” said Brinkley. “He was the ultimate hero in an era of corruptible men.”
A man who kept away from cameras, Armstrong went public in 2010 with his concerns about President Barack Obama’s space policy that shifted attention away from a return to the moon and emphasized private companies developing spaceships.
Armstrong’s moonwalk capped a series of accomplishments that included piloting the X-15 rocket plane and making the first space docking during the Gemini 8 mission, which included a successful emergency splashdown.
In the years afterward, Armstrong retreated to the quiet of the classroom and his Ohio farm.
The 1969 landing met an audacious deadline that President Kennedy had set in May 1961, shortly after Alan Shepard became the first American in space with a 15-minute suborbital flight. (Soviet cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin had orbited the Earth and beaten the U.S. into space the previous month.)
“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” Kennedy had said.
The end-of-decade goal was met with more than five months to spare. “Houston: Tranquility Base here,” Armstrong radioed after the spacecraft settled onto the moon. “The Eagle has landed.”
Armstrong was born on a farm near Wapakoneta in western Ohio. He enrolled in Purdue U. to study aeronautical engineering but was called to duty with the U.S. Navy in 1949 and flew 78 combat missions in Korea. After the war, Armstrong finished his degree from Purdue and later earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from USC. He became a test pilot with what evolved into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, flying more than 200 kinds of aircraft from gliders to jets.
Armstrong was accepted into NASA’s second astronaut class in 1962. He commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, bringing back the capsule back in an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean when a wildly firing thruster kicked it out of orbit.
In 1970, Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA but left the following year to teach aerospace engineering at the U. of Cincinnati. He remained there until 1979 and during that time bought a farm near Lebanon. He stayed out of public view, accepting few requests for interviews or speeches.
From 1982-92, Armstrong was chairman of Charlottesville, Va.-based Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc., a company that supplies computer information management systems for business aircraft. He then became chairman of AIL Systems Inc., an electronic systems company in Deer Park, N.Y.
Armstrong married Carol Knight in 1999, and the couple lived in Indian Hill, a Cincinnati suburb. He had two adult sons from a previous marriage.