Neil Armstrong: The reluctant hero

Neil Armstrong, the first of 12 men to walk on the Moon, is the finest ambassador of all.

The remarkable thing about the men who have walked on the Moon is how normal they are.

There have been only a dozen of them, two in each of six Apollo missions between July 1969 and December 1972. Another dozen have orbited the Moon, either in preparatory missions before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped on to its surface 40 years ago, as pilots of the command modules, or as members of the crew of the crippled Apollo 13, whose safe return to Earth was one of the miracles of the United States space programme.

To this day, these 24 men are the only human beings to have travelled outside low Earth orbit – and will remain so at least until 2015, according to the scheme announced five years ago by President George W Bush for a permanent manned lunar base to serve as launch site for the exploration of more distant reaches of the solar system. Binding them is a single experience that only they among the 6.7 billion denizens of our planet have tasted, and that the rest of us, however enthralled by their feat, however awed by the cosmos, will never quite be able to grasp.

The words of James Irwin, the eighth man to walk on the moon, capture it as well as any. As Apollo 15 travelled deeper into space, the Earth "reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness .... As we got farther and farther away ... it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine .... That beautiful warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart." Seeing this, he recalled before his death in 1991, "has to change a man".

And Irwin was changed. A year after his return to Earth in July 1971, he left the air force and Nasa to set up a Christian organisation called High Flight. Others were altered too. In different ways, almost all of them discovered a greater spirituality. Many wrote books, some took up less orthodox interests. Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 was the sixth man to walk on the Moon, but his main claim to fame now is his belief in unidentified flying objects, and his insistence that UFOs and visits to Earth by extra-terrestrials have been systematically covered up by the US government.

Alan Bean, the fourth man on the Moon, became a painter of lunar scenes, as if to try and prolong an experience that lasted just seven hours – "our time on the Moon ended much too quickly," he says on his website. Many of his 170 works are displayed in a special exhibit that opened last week at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Harrison Schmitt, the last man to step on to the Moon, took up the more mundane calling of politics, as US senator for his home state of New Mexico. But he too was shaped for ever by his time on the lunar surface in December 1972, and the vision of "the black sky, the brilliantly illuminated slopes of the mountains ... and our Earth is a big blue marble hanging over one of the mountains". Then there's Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, who after Apollo 11, struggled for years with alcoholism and depression before regaining normality with his third wife Lois. Aldrin is now perhaps the strongest advocate of all of them of a renewed US effort in space.

Aldrin's vicissitudes however are if anything the exception. Three of the dozen have died: Pete Conrad in a motorcycle accident; Alan Shepard after a long illness; and Irwin, who died of a heart attack. They and the nine survivors largely coped very well with their life-changing journeys into space. Their life expectancy and life patterns have not been so very different from any comparable group of well educated and highly trained white males, in outstanding physical condition – apart perhaps from the minor peculiarity that six of the 12 were of at least partial Scottish ancestry.

All but one of them (Schmitt) had served in the US armed forces. They were only chosen by Nasa after an exceptionally rigorous selection process in which they underwent close pyschological as well as physical examination, and from which only a handful of the hundreds of applicants would emerge. The first groups of would-be astronauts were required by Nasa to have at least a bachelor's degree. By 1964, only those with a doctorate or equivalent in engineering or a related discipline needed to apply. Shepard was of a slightly earlier generation, the only man on the Moon to have belonged to the "Mercury Seven" featured in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. He would be 85 today, but the nine still alive are aged between 74 and 79 – and their post-lunar lives have not been that extraordinary.

Several of them wrote books about their experience. Some set up space-related consultancies, others joined corporate boards. But none crassly exploited their celebrity. They were after all grown men aged between 36 and 41 – with the exception of Shepard – when their moment in history arrived. They have had failed marriages and famous affairs (for example the two-year liaison between David Scott and the former ITN news reader Anna Ford), but such lapses are not exactly unknown among humans who have not visited the Moon.

And none of them is more normal than Neil Armstrong, the most famous of them all. He is one of the Scottish contingent – back in 1972 he paid a triumphant visit to Langholm in Dumfriesshire, traditional seat of the Armstrong clan, to be made a freeman of the town. But that was one of Armstrong's rare public forays since Apollo 11's epic voyage. As the first man on the Moon, he was always going to face the fiercest ordeal by celebrity. Indeed a fresh measure of it came last week when a cheque signed by Armstrong on the eve of the Apollo 11 mission, was put up for auction. The cheque itself was for $10.50, made out to Harold Collins, a Nasa manager, to repay money Collins had lent to the astronaut, to be cashed if the astronaut did not return from the Moon. Last week, 40 years later, it fetched more than $27,000, a record for Armstrong memorabilia.

After the 1969 flight, Armstrong stayed on at Nasa for just two years. Wearied by the unending attention and demands on his time, he left to teach engineering at the University of Cincinnati in his native Ohio, not to return to public life again.

He never wrote his memoirs. In 2005 he finally consented to an exhaustive biography written by the historian James Hansen. Otherwise he gives no interviews and will be largely shunning the 40th anniversary festivities. Nasa's official show tomorrow will be headlined by Aldrin. Armstrong is due to deliver a lecture tonight at the Smithsonian Institution but, as an official made clear, "he will not be doing interviews or photos".

He hardly ever visits even his home town of Wapakoneta, nestled in the rich agricultural lands of Western Ohio and where a museum named after him honours his achievement. Instead he lives comfortably, quietly and very happily on a farm half an hour's drive north of Cincinnati, with his second wife Carol.

The reclusiveness has not been to everyone's taste. Hansen himself suggests that Nasa, aware of the avalanche of publicity that would descend on the first man to set foot on the lunar surface, deliberately made sure the distinction would fall to the restrained, ever-in-control Armstrong, rather than to the more volatile and emotional Aldrin. The choice, some would complain, has backfired. A more outgoing and self-publicising figure, they argue, might have kept Nasa more firmly in the spotlight, and speeded the development of America's space programme. But in a deeper sense, Armstrong has been the perfect ambassador for the great Moon adventure that, over the decades, has retained both an epic majesty and a simple human dignity.

Titans of Space: The pioneers who made the impossible possible

Heavenly creatures

Fruit flies went where no animal had gone before in 1947, on board a V2 rocket. Frogs, tortoises, rabbits, worms, bees, spiders, newts, mice, cats and rats followed.

Muttniks

Strelka's alive! And so is Belka. How the Russians rejoiced when two dogs became the first animals to orbit the Earth and return in one piece in 1960. Laika, the most famous of Russia's 57 "Muttnik" missions, was the first animal to orbit Earth in 1957 but died of stress a few hours after lift-off.

Monkey magic

The Russians had dogs, the Americans monkeys (inset left). Albert II became the first primate in space in 1949; Able and Miss Baker the first to survive space flight in 1959. Ham the Chimp pulled levers in 1961, becoming the first to be more than a passenger.

The X-Factor

Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 – the first man to do so – test flying a rocket-powered plane called the Bell X-1. Neil Armstrong was also an X project test pilot and Yeager became first commandant of the astronaut training school in 1962.

First of the few

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space in 1961; Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space in 1963; Alexey Leonov the first to walk in space in 1965; James Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders the first to see the dark side of the Moon in 1968, and Neil Armstrong ...

The Right Stuff

The first seven US astronauts were chosen in 1959 under Project Mercury: Scott Carpenter, Leroy Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton (who was grounded due to a heart condition).

Moonwalkers

Twelve men stood on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

So near, and yet ...

One astronaut had to remain in orbit 60 miles above the surface on each moon mission. They were: Michael Collins, Dick Gordon, Jack Swigert, Fred Haise, Stuart Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly and Ronald Evans.

Disasters

Apollo 13, with Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise, was a near disaster in 1970 but it was saved thanks to an air filter made out of cardboard and sticky-back plastic. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were all killed, when the Apollo 1 capsule caught fire during a test in January 1967. Vladimir Komarov died when his parachute failed to open on re-entry in 1967, one of several Russian disasters, many of which were kept secret.

Ground Control

Charlie Duke went to the Moon but is best remembered as the voice of Mission Control which guided Eagle down in July 1969. Deke Slayton chose future astronauts, while Chris Kraft dreamt up Mission Control.

Andrew Johnson

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