Quiet, modest, courageous and capable, Neil Armstrong wasn't the only man who might have led the first mission to the moon. But he was the right man.
On Saturday, Armstrong's family announced his death at the age of 82. The first man to walk on the moon still kept a lively and knowledgeable interest in the U.S. space program, testifying before Congress as recently as this past spring.
But Armstrong did much of his work quietly. He didn't flee the world's attention -- his good sense would have told him that was impossible even had he wanted to -- but he didn't encourage it, either. He had an understated way and lived by an old-school ethic that says performance speaks louder than words.
His most famous words marked his best-known performance -- "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The moon landing made his name permanent in world history, put Wapakoneta, Ohio, on the map and made good President John F. Kennedy's pledge that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.
The U.S. space program's achievement was dazzling then, riveting the world's attention on success after success -- interrupted by the Gemini fire tragedy of 1967 -- that seemed to accelerate as we went deeper into the decade. From Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, from Alan Shepard's 20-minute space shot and splash to low-gravity adventures in the Sea of Tranquility. From one to another? A little more than eight years.
Looking back from 2012, that achievement seems even more dazzling now than it did then. Amid all the turmoil of the '60s, the space program drove on with a momentum and unity of purpose to take humanity into the unknown. To work for NASA was to be an explorer, to have a mission and to have the nation at your back.
NASA lives; Martian missions are proof of that. The Hubble Space Telescope has reached unfathomably deep into space. But we seem light-years away from the leaps of Armstrong's day; we've conceded some of the cutting edge to other nations.
That's another difference between then and now that Armstrong and his contemporaries symbolized. Then, we were moving ahead. And if the catalyst was fear -- the Soviet Sputnik of 1957 and subsequent manned missions -- the sustaining force was fearlessness. The United States was leading the way to other worlds. We would go farther, reach the moon and then catch our breath before going farther still. What the space program distilled to reality for that decade was the sense that anything is possible.
That spirit took dreamers and engineers, pilots and mechanics and physicists.
And it took cool heads and steady hands. Neil Armstrong had both.
BOTTOM LINE: Raise a glass of whatever you drink to Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.