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Neil Armstrong
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Neil Armstrong

Modest footprint

Obituary | Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

Issue: "Dead heat," Sept. 22, 2012

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong flew the lunar module Eagle over the surface of the moon, searching for a safe, flat place to land. Inside the Eagle, alarms sounded: The module had 60 seconds of fuel left, with 100 feet to go before touchdown. Co-pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. was getting nervous.

When they finally landed, the Eagle had just 17 seconds of fuel to spare.
Armstrong, who died Aug. 25 at the age of 82, was familiar with danger. As a fighter pilot in the Korean War, he ejected from a damaged plane. Later he worked as a test pilot for what became NASA, flying the experimental X-15 jet at 4,000 miles per hour. As commander of Gemini 8 in 1966, he co-piloted the first successful space docking, and brought his spacecraft safely home after it began to roll uncontrollably.

A few hours after landing on the moon, Armstrong became the first human to step on its surface - and with immortal words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

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A camera mounted on the Eagle broadcast Armstrong's small step to an estimated 530 million viewers around the world. The landing marked American victory in a space race with the Soviet Union, and when Armstrong, Aldrin, and fellow astronaut Michael Collins returned to Earth, they were U.S. heroes.

Armstrong shunned the limelight, though, eventually returning to his home state of Ohio to serve as a University of Cincinnati professor and to farm corn and cattle. Colleagues admired his modesty. His first wife, Janet Shearon, said Armstrong felt guilty about getting "all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people."

After his death last month of complications from heart procedures, Armstrong's family issued a statement calling him "a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job."

Thomas L. Friedman, in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, related a story about the astronaut's tour of Jerusalem's Old City: Upon learning he was standing where Jesus walked, Armstrong-who once called himself a deist-reportedly said, "I have to tell you … I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon."

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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