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Neil Armstrong dies at 82; first person to walk on moon

Neil Armstrong's 'giant leap for mankind' as he set foot on the lunar surface in 1969 climaxed a monumental achievement in human history. Despite his fame, the former fighter pilot shrank from the spotlight and called himself a 'nerdy engineer.'

August 25, 2012|Valerie J. Nelson and Eric Malnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Neil Armstrong inside the Apollo 11 lunar module after his historic walk on the surface of the moon.
Neil Armstrong inside the Apollo 11 lunar module after his historic walk… (NASA )

When Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, 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 man; one giant leap for mankind."

The grainy black-and-white television images of him taking his first lunar stroll were watched by an estimated 600 million people worldwide — and firmly established him as one of the great heroes of the 20th century.

Armstrong, who had heart surgery in early August, died Saturday in Cincinnati at 82, said NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs. The cause was complications from cardiovascular procedures, his family announced.

PHOTOS: Neil Armstrong | 1930-2012

For the usually taciturn Armstrong, the poetic statement was a rare burst of eloquence, a sound bite for the ages that only increased his fame. He was never comfortable with celebrity he saw as an accident of fate, for stepping on the moon ahead of fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. The reticent, self-effacing Armstrong would shun the spotlight for much of the rest of his life.

In a rare public appearance, in 2000, Armstrong cast himself in another light: "I am, and ever will be, a white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer."

History would beg to disagree.

PHOTOS: Apollo 11 mission

In a statement, President Obama said that when Armstrong stepped on the moon, "he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten."

And when Armstrong and his two fellow crew members lifted off from Earth in Apollo 11, "they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation," Obama said. "They set out to show the world that American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable — that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible."

NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke for many when he said, "As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them."

"Besides being one of America's greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with grace and humility that was an example to us all," Bolden said in a statement.

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2012

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."

Yet how many other self-proclaimed nerdy engineers flew 78 combat missions as a Navy 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?

His biographer, James R. Hansen, called Armstrong "one of the best-known and least-understood people on the planet."

When asked to describe the astronaut in just a few words, Hansen told Ohio's Columbus Dispatch in 2005 that Armstrong was "stoic, self-controlled, dedicated, earnest, hardworking and honest."

Neil Alden Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, on his grandfather's farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio, and had a happy and conventional upbringing.

His civil servant father, Stephen Armstrong, 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 moved around Ohio to accommodate his father's job before settling down in Wapakoneta.

At age 6 he took a ride in a transport plane, then 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 attended Purdue University on a Navy scholarship. By the time the Korean War started in 1950, Armstrong had been 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.

Within months, he was a civilian test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He was soon stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, chronicled by author Tom Wolfe as the home to pilots with "The Right Stuff."

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