Aug 29, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

He's forever the 'First Man'

If you see a flag flying at half staff this Friday, it's in honor of Armstrong.

Not Lance. Neil.

If you ask the average American to name an astronaut, the most common answer, apparently, is "I don't know."

The second most common answer is Neil Armstrong. That's good. If you have to remember just one astronaut, he's the one.

Neil Armstrong's words in 1969, upon becoming the first man to walk on the moon, are more famous --"That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind," -- but for sheer impact what he said a few hours earlier might take the cake.

After crackling interference on the radio from a quarter-million miles away -- which followed a tense period of low fuel in the tank of the small moon landing spacecraft named Eagle, alarming messages from onboard computers, and the knowledge that the original landing spot had been missed over a relatively smooth surface of the lunar surface called the Sea of Tranquility -- Armstrong's tenor voice finally emerged on the flight radio frequency as rapt ground crew members in Houston listened:

"Houston. Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed."

Neil Armstrong had flown to the moon.

He wasn't there by himself. Astronaut Edwin T. "Buzz" Aldrin was right there in the Eagle capsule with him, and Michael Collins was orbiting above the moon in the space ship that would return all three men to Earth.

Here's something to make you feel old. Most Americans know of Armstrong's trip to the moon and back only as something from history books or occasional TV specials on the anniversary. That is, more Americans alive today were born after 1969 than before it.

How many other moon-walker astronauts do we even remember? Alan Shepard, the first man in space, also walked on the moon. John Young, participant in more space flights than any other American, walked on the moon. So did eight other astronauts.

But their names are lost to most of us. Could that be one reason Armstrong was chosen as the "First Man," to borrow the title of James Hansen's biography of Armstrong? That name was almost perfect for the first man on the moon.

In short order this summer, we have lost the first man on the moon and the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. Our American astronauts are passing into history. Of the 12 who walked on the moon, just nine survive. The youngest is 72 years old.

Armstrong was 10 years older than that when he died over the weekend. That caught some readers by surprise, if only because they didn't know Neil Armstrong was still alive. He had become frozen in time for most of us in 1969, because he had nearly disappeared from the public eye after that. After 1969 there weren't many interviews or parades, no runs for public office. That was the way he wanted it.

He was not a swashbuckler, not an attention seeker. He was an engineer, a man of precision rather than bravado, a man of science rather than politics, a man of action rather than theater.

Back in the days when a photograph still had the power to become iconic, the Apollo 11 moon mission yielded a great one. It shows a space-suited astronaut, standing in profile next to the American flag he had just planted on the surface of the moon. MTV used the picture as its unofficial logo for years.

But that's not Neil Armstrong. It's Buzz Aldrin. Armstrong had the camera.

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