The Farmer's Son Who Took a Giant Leap for Mankind; as the First Man to Walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong Is the Most Famous Pioneer of Space Exploration. Aled Blake Looks at His Place in History
ON July 20, 1969, the unassuming son of a farming family in Ohio made a walk that changed history.
Neil Armstrong was a quiet, self-described "nerdy" engineer who became a global hero when as a steely nerved US pilot he made "one giant leap for mankind" with the first step on the moon.
The modest Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon July 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century's scientific expeditions.
His first words after setting foot on the surface are etched in history books and in the memories of those who heard them in a live broadcast.
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," Armstrong said.
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent nearly three hours walking on the lunar surface, collecting samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs.
"The sights were simply magnificent, beyond any visual experience that I had ever been exposed to," Armstrong once said.
The moonwalk marked America's victory in the Cold War space race that began October 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1, a satellite that sent shock waves around the world.
An estimated 600 million people - a fifth of the world's population - watched and listened to the moon landing, the largest audience for any single event in history.
Parents huddled with their children in front of the family television, mesmerised. Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the road and checked into motels just to watch on TV.
Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for Nasa's forerunner and an astronaut, Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space programme.
"I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer," he said in February 2000 in one of his rare public appearances. "And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession."
Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Armstrong for oral histories for Nasa, said Armstrong fitted every requirement the space agency needed for the first man to walk on the moon, especially because of his engineering skills and the way he handled celebrity by shunning it.
Nasa chief Charles Bolden recalled Armstrong's grace and humility in a statement.
"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," Mr Bolden said.
Armstrong's modesty and self-effacing manner never faded.
When he appeared in Dayton, Ohio, in 2003 to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight, he bounded onto a stage before 10,000 people. But he spoke for only a few seconds, did not mention the moon and quickly ducked out of the spotlight.
He later joined former astronaut and Senator John Glenn to lay wreaths on the graves of airplane inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright.
The 1969 landing met an audacious deadline that President John F Kennedy had set in May 1961, shortly after Alan Shepard became the first American in space with a 15-minute suborbital flight.
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri A Gagarin had orbited the Earth and beaten the US into space the previous month.
"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth," Mr Kennedy had said.
The end-of-decade goal was met with more than five months to spare. …