America was yesterday remembering Neil Armstrong, who died at the weekend from complications from a heart procedure, as a quietly spoken icon who captivated the world when he became the first man on the Moon one July day in 1969 – and who in his twilight years came to bemoan the paring back of Nasa's mission to explore space.
Messages of tribute flowed from the worlds of politics, science and even celebrity but nothing said about the former astronaut held the power of the words he himself uttered as he stepped on to the Moon's surface with Buzz Aldrin: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." He was later to insist he thought he said one small step for "a" man, though he admitted he couldn't hear it on tapes.
A statement from his family said Mr Armstrong had died on Saturday at age 82 in Cincinnati a few weeks after undergoing bypass surgery. He was "a reluctant hero who always believed he was just doing his job," it said.
The historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University in Texas was among those who underscored how much Mr Armstrong's instinct to shun the limelight was part of his power as a cultural touchstone in America.
"I think his genius was in his reclusiveness," Mr Brinkley said. "He was the ultimate hero in an era of corruptible men."
But it didn't stop Mr Armstrong from voicing his sense of disappointment in recent years as Nasa, which had inspired generations with its feats beyond the bounds of Earth, has been forced to abandon its shuttle programme and turn to the private sector to develop the next generation of space vehicles.
"Nasa has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve," he said earlier this year. "It is sad that we are turning the program in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people. And that's a major concern to me."
While some of his criticism had been aimed at today's White House, President Barack Obama was quick to offer his own tribute. "When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable – that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible," Mr Obama said.
Especially poignant was the publication by the Los Angeles Times yesterday of words written by former journalist and speech-writer William Safire for then President Richard Nixon to say in a national broadcast in the event that the mission had failed.
"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace," Mr Nixon would have told a shocked nation. That obituary never had to be read because of course they came home, carrying Moon dust with them and achieving what John F Kennedy had hoped for: decisively beating the Soviets in the space race.
Tributes for a true American hero
"Neil was among the greatest of American heroes – not just of his time, but of all time."
Barack Obama, US President
"As we enter this next era of space exploration, we do so standing on the shoulders of Neil Armstrong."
Charles Bolden, Nasa chief
"I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero. "
Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 astronaut
"The Moon will miss its first son of Earth."
Mitt Romney, US Republican presidential contender
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