Neil Armstrong, the U.S. astronaut who was the first person to set foot on the moon, firmly establishing him as one of the great heroes of the 20th century, has died. He was 82. Armstrong died following complications from cardiovascular procedures, his family announced Saturday.
When he made that famous step on July 20, 1969, he uttered a phrase that has been carved in stone and quoted across the planet: “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong spoke those words quietly as he gazed down at his, the first human footprint on the surface of the moon. In the excitement of the moment, the “a” was left out — either because Armstrong omitted it or because it was lost in the static of the radio transmission back to Earth.
For the usually taciturn Armstrong, it was a rare burst of eloquence seen and heard by 60 million television viewers worldwide. But Armstrong, a reticent, self-effacing man who shunned the spotlight, was never comfortable with his public image as a courageous, historic man of action.
“I am, and ever will be, a white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” Armstrong once told a National Press Club gathering.
How many other nerdy engineers flew 78 combat missions as a Navy jet fighter pilot during the Korean War? Logged more than 1,000 hours as a test pilot in some of the world’s fastest and most dangerous aircraft? Or became one of the first civilian astronauts and commanded Apollo 11, the first manned flight to land on the moon?
In the years that followed the flight of Apollo 11, Armstrong was asked again and again what it felt like to be the first man on the moon. In answering, he always shared the glory: “I was certainly aware that this was the culmination of the work of 300,000 to 400,000 people over a decade.”
Neil Alden Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, on his grandfather’s farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio. His father, Stephen Armstrong, was a civil servant who audited county records in Ohio and later served as assistant director of the Ohio Mental Hygiene and Corrections Department. The family of his mother, Viola, owned the farm.
For more than a decade, his family lived in a succession of Ohio cities to accommodate his father’s job before settling down in Wapakoneta. After his father bought him a ride in a Ford Trimotor transport plane in 1936, Armstrong rushed home and began building model airplanes and a wind tunnel to test them.
A good student, Armstrong was a much-decorated Boy Scout and played the baritone horn in a school band. But aviation always came first. In 1945, he started taking flying lessons, paying for them by working as a stock clerk at a drugstore. On his 16th birthday, he got his pilot’s license but didn’t yet have a driver’s license.
Upon graduating from high school in 1947, he was awarded a Navy scholarship to Purdue University. When the Korean War started in 1949, Armstrong was called to active duty.
After flight training, Armstrong was assigned to the carrier Essex, flying combat missions over North Korea. Although one of the Panther jets he flew off the carrier was crippled by enemy fire, he nursed the plane back over South Korea before bailing out safely. Recognized as an outstanding pilot with a flair for leadership, he received three Air Medals before finishing his active duty in 1952.
He returned to Purdue and earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955.
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First published on the Los Angeles Times