Neil Armstrong: 'One of the greatest American heroes of all time'

With 'one small step', he made history as the first man on the Moon. Now, on his death, a president, and the world, pay tribute

Neil Armstrong, the US astronaut whose grainy image on television transfixed the world on 20 July, 1969 as he climbed down from the tiny lunar module and became the first human to set foot on the Moon, has died at the age of 82, of complications from heart surgery.

The news came yesterday in a brief statement from his family. It did not specify where or exactly when Armstrong, who underwent a bypass earlier this month to relieve blocked coronary arteries, had died. It described him as "a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job".

Those words capture the essence of a man whose head was never turned by global celebrity, despite a feat that vaulted him into the company of history's greatest explorers and pioneers, alongside Columbus and Magellan, and his compatriots the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh. As President Barack Obama said last night: "Neil was among the greatest of American heroes - not just of his time, but of all time. When he stepped foot on the surface of the Moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten."

The Moon landing had been ordained by John F Kennedy in May 1961, just a month after the Soviet Union stunned the US by sending Yuri Gagarin safely into Earth orbit. Kennedy's deadline was the end of the decade. The goal was met by the Apollo 11 mission, and Neil Armstrong – young, handsome, and, most important, American – entered his country's pantheon of heroes. There was a dose of luck that Armstrong was involved in what was just his second foray into space. An accident or technical glitch might have upended the timetable. But it may have been more than coincidence that he was chosen to command the Apollo 11 crew that comprised himself, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, who also walked on the Moon, and Michael Collins, who remained in the command module, in lunar orbit.

Armstrong himself was typically unassuming about what happened. "I wasn't chosen to be first, circumstance put me in that particular role, it wasn't planned by anyone," he told CBS television in a rare 2005 interview. But Nasa may have sensed that the individual who was first would see his life transformed, and that, of the three, Armstrong was best suited to handle the pressure.

Some would call him a recluse, even likening him to Howard Hughes. The reality was different. Armstrong simply handled fame with extraordinary good sense and dignity. He disliked the limelight, craving above all normality. And by and large he succeeded. Armstrong's public appearances were rare. He did not lend himself to stunts. "Fame never turned his head, he's a true professional," his old friend John Swez once said. "He's got a good sense of humour, he's funny and outgoing. He's probably the most intelligent man I've ever talked to. Yes, he's careful in what he says... he wants to get it right."

The one thing Armstrong did not quite get right were his first words on stepping on to the surface of the Moon's Sea of Tranquillity, to a global television audience of 500 million, one sixth of humanity. "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," is what he meant to say. But that "a" got lost, and no manner of tape enhancement or other wizardry has ever brought it back.

If ever a man was predestined to go to the Moon it was Armstrong. He was born in 1930, the son of an Ohio auditor, in the state which has produced more US astronauts than any other, not far from Dayton, the home town of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Flight, its mysteries and challenges, were his obsessions. At 16, before he learnt to drive, he had a pilot's licence. By 1951 he was in the Navy, flying armed reconnaissance missions over Korea, before graduating from college and becoming a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There he flew such legendary and exotic planes as the Bell X-1 and North American's hypersonic X-15 which still holds the speed record for manned flight (4,519 mph, or Mach 6).

His skill and coolness under pressure made him an ideal candidate for the Nasa space programme that Armstrong joined in 1962. He earned his spurs on the Gemini programme, making his debut space flight in March 1966 on the Gemini 8 mission which achieved the first ever docking between two spacecraft – the other being an unmanned target vehicle, Agena.

With Apollo 11's triumph, the world was at Armstrong's feet. But after two unavoidable years as an ambassador for Nasa and his country, he decided enough was enough, and returned in 1971 to his first love, aeronautical engineering, as a professor at the University of Cincinnati. The initial media clamour quickly subsided when Armstrong made clear he was intent on teaching, not talking with reporters.

He never cashed in by writing his memoirs. Only three decades later did he agree to co-operate with a biographer, the historian James Hansen, who in 2005 produced First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, a 750-page tome that is fascinating but scholarly, as unshowy as its subject.

Above all he was a modest man, insistent that his journey to the Moon was the fruit of a decade's work at Nasa, which had involved hundreds of thousands of people in all. "I guess we all like to be recognised not for one piece of fireworks," he used to say, "but the ledger of our daily work."

He lived out his final years on his farm at Lebanon, Ohio, half an hour's drive north of Cincinnati. He was once asked how he felt knowing his footprints would probably stay on the Moon's surface for thousands of years. "I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up," he replied.

In his own words

On touching down: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed."

As he lowered himself to the Moon's surface: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

Looking back at Earth: "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet. I felt very, very small."

On his career: "I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession."

On his footprints on the Moon: "I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up."

On dreams: "I can honestly say — and it's a big surprise to me — that I have never had a dream about being on the Moon."

Tributes to a man of courage

"While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life, and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves."

The Armstrong family

"Neil was among the greatest of American heroes – not just of his time, but of all time. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the Moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten."

Barack Obama; US President

"As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind's first small step on a world beyond our own."

Charles Bolden; Nasa Administrator

"On behalf of the Aldrin family, we extend our deepest condolences to Carol and the entire Armstrong family on Neil's passing. He will be missed."

Buzz Aldrin; Second man on the moon

"He was the best, and I will miss him terribly."

Michael Collins; The third astronaut in Apollo 11 crew

"Mr Armstrong was my hero. He really was an inspiration to an entire generation."

Tom Jones

Former astronaut who completed four space shuttle flights between 1990 and 2001

"As the first man on the Moon, he broke all records. I knew him well. He was a man who had all the courage in the world."

Sir Patrick Moore; Astronomer

"Apollo was the greatest of human achievements. For once, we reached beyond our grasp."

Professor Brian Cox; Physicist

"Thank you for everything, for your sacrifices, achievements, and inspiration. We will try to carry on your legacy."

Bobak Ferdowsi; Flight director on the current Mars Curiosity mission.

"The Moon will miss its first son of Earth."

Mitt Romney; Republican presidential candidate

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