His family, in the statement they released upon his death, called Neil Armstrong a "reluctant hero." The fame bestowed upon him as the first human to walk on another world, by all accounts, weighed upon him. Throughout his life, Armstrong shied away from stardom and limelight.
But the men who worked beside him during those heady glory years of the moon race saw and knew a man none of us did. "A lot of guys could have done that," Walt Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7, said of being the first human to walk on the moon. But Cunningham added emphatically, "Nobody in our group, nobody else could have handled the fame and glory that came his way."
The Apollo astronauts I spoke with all said of Armstrong that it was never about him. It was always about the team.
Charlie Duke flew on Apollo 16 and was the 10th man to walk on the moon. He was the capcom, capsule communicator, during Apollo 11 when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history. Duke says you need look no further than the patch the crew wore to see how strongly Armstrong felt about team.
"His (Apollo 11 mission) patch was the only one that didn't have any names on it," Duke said. "Neil believed it was a U.S. accomplishment, not their accomplishment."
"He was one of the humblest men I ever met," he added.
As the years went by, Armstrong was always there for his fellow Apollo astronauts. Whenever he could, Armstrong attended the anniversary celebrations for the Apollo flights. He stayed away from the public functions but was there for the private gatherings. "I miss him," Duke said. "He came to our anniversary back in April for our 40th."
Of the three Apollo 14 crew members, only Edgar Mitchell was at the 40th anniversary celebration a year and a half ago. Both Al Shepard and Stu Roosa died in the 1990s. I remember Armstrong graciously shaking hands and taking pictures with anyone and everyone. Even though this was one of those private events, it seemed everyone who attended wanted to at least shake Neil's hand. I did. And did.
Cunningham remembers Armstrong was always that way. "I was really struck by how glowing he was about the earlier missions, including Apollo 7. He was one of those guys who understood it was about the team," Cunningham said.
Dick Gordon was the command module pilot on Apollo 12. He circled the moon, snapping pictures that would be used to help pinpoint future landing sites, while Pete Conrad and Alan Bean walked on the moon. Gordon met Armstrong in 1958, when they were both test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base. Gordon said they would have long conversations about dynamic testing. "What's that?" I asked. "Airplanes going like hell," Gordon answered.
Gordon said he appreciated Armstrong's intellect and thoughtful process. "I was more impressed with his humanity and humbleness. There's not too much of that in the astronaut corps, you know," Gordon added with a laugh.
Neil Armstrong was 38 years old when he walked on the moon in July 1969. He left the astronaut corps a year later and taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He once joked, "I am and ever will be a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer."
Armstrong certainly understood that history would always remember him as the first human to set foot on the moon. But as Armstrong saw it, he was no more the star of that show than any of the other thousands of NASA engineers, scientists, technicians and fellow astronauts. He just happened to be the man at the tip of the spear who took that "one small step."
What seemed to trouble him was that the outside world didn't see him or know him as anything more than the "spaceman." During a "60 Minutes" interview, Armstrong said, "I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work." It was the kind of statement that personified Neil Armstrong.
Gordon summed him up this way: "A man of few words, but the few words counted."