After his great feat of becoming the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s career seemed destined for stardom: He played the leading role, along with his peers, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins, in many triumphant parades and awards ceremonies.
But he shied away from the spotlight. After being selected as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA, he resigned in 1971 to become an aerospace engineer professor at Cincinnati University, where he served until 1981.
After that, Armstrong served as president of aerospace technology companies, Computing Technologies for Aviation and AIL Systems, as well as honorary positions at institutions such as the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the International Astronautical Federation.
He made few public appearances. In 1982 he gave the commencement speech at Cincinnati University. In 1994 he participated in the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 mission at the White House with a message that lasted less than a minute. In 2009 he gave a speech during the 40th anniversary of the mission at the United States Capitol.
In 2010, Neil Armstrong returned to the public scene with a specific mission: to discourage budget cuts for the NASA space program.
In 2004, President George W. Bush administration published Vision for Space Exploration, a development plan with the main objective of creating, by 2014, a new vehicle capable of transporting humans beyond the Earth's atmosphere. It was the first stage of preparation for the return of men to the moon, scheduled at some point between 2015 and 2020, which would open the path for a manned expedition to Mars during the 2020 decade.
The Bush administration estimated that NASA budget would grow from $15 billion in 2009 to $20 billion in 2020, as a result of generous contributions from private investors in mixed projects. However, the economic crisis in 2008 has affected NASA’s budget: In 2010 the money available for the agency was $18.7 billion and its estimated that by 2013 it will be $17.7 billion.
With the arrival of President Barack Obama to the White House in 2009, the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee began an overhaul of his predecessor’s plans in order to make them mesh with economic reality. As a result of the investigation, in October 2009, the group published the report "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation" that delayed Constellation (a program that grouped the initiatives to return to the moon, including an astronaut capsule called Orion and a rocket for heavy loads called Ares V) that were scheduled after 2015. The program, in practice, was canceled.
In April 2010, Neil Armstrong, along with astronauts James Lovell (who flew on Apollo 8 and was commander of the Apollo 13 mission) and Eugene Cernan (commander of the last moon mission, Apollo 17) signed an open letter in which they said: “It appears that we will have wasted our current ten plus billion dollar investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded,” and they concluded with a call for America to “decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space."
One month later, Armstrong and Cernan presented themselves at the U.S. Senate Committee of Commerce, Science and Transportation to defend the budget for the Constellation program. During his testimony, Armstrong said: “America is respected for its contributions it has made in learning to sail on this new ocean. If the leadership we have acquired, through our investment, is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered.”
“Shuttle termination and Constellation cancellation will result in widespread breakup of design, manufacturing, test and operating teams that will be expensive and time-consuming to reassemble when they are once again needed,” Armstrong said.
At the end of his speech, the astronaut said, “It was asserted that by buying taxi service to Low Earth Orbit rather than owning the taxis, 'we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met.'" He added that private companies' spacecraft, to his knowledge, have not been as rigorously tested for safety as existing rockets have, expressing concern that the U.S. space program under Obama would only use private enterprise to carry people and cargo to space.
Despite Armstrong’s efforts , on June 28, 2010, Obama presented at the White House the document National Space Policy of the United States of America, confirming the administration’s original plans: a focus on unmanned missions, an extension on the lifetime of the International Space Station until the end of the decade, the cancellation of the space shuttle and Constellation programs, and a collaboration with Russia and other private enterprises to send humans into space.
Regarding manned missions, the new politics of space exploration forgot the plans to return to the moon, and proposed to NASA the beginning of work on a manned mission to Mars at some point after 2025.
Neil Armstrong’s death leaves humanity without a pioneer, but also without an idealist who wanted to rescue the spirit of manned space exploration that we have entrusted in robots and satellites, even as other nations, such as China with its Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, aim to take the next big step for humankind in the second half of the decade to come.