America’s most famous astronaut, Neil Armstrong, died today at the age of 82, reports NBC News. Just weeks after undergoing heart-bypass surgery, his family announced today in a brief statement that he’d “passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.” Armstrong made history just over 43 years ago, when he and the Apollo 11 mission he led touched down on the moon. Since then, his name has been synonymous with the vast beyond and America’s space program (not to mention the United States’ first real Cold War-era victory over the Soviets.)
The landing — which took place on July 20th, 1969 after 195-hour trip from Cape Canaveral — was the most-watched moment in television history, with 600 million pairs of eyeballs — one fifth of the world’s population — tuning in to watch. Armstrong was the first one out the door and, after becoming the first human ever to walk on the moon, he radioed back to Houston Mission Control with the now iconic line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
For the next three hours, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin wandered the moon’s surface, taking rock samples, conducting experiments, and taking some of history’s most memorable photos. Though the two were not much for sentiment, Aldrin still remembers “a brief moment, in which we sort of looked at each other and slapped each other on the shoulder … and said, ‘We made it. Good show,’ or something like that.”
After they returned to earth, Earth, Armstrong and Aldrin (and to a lesser extent their mission comrade Michael Collins, who stayed in lunar orbit) were greeted with heroes’ welcomes, ticker-tape parades in New York City and Chicago, and later a 22-nation victory lap. But Armstrong tired of the pageantry and fame quickly.
Described by a former NASA spokesman as “a recluse’s recluse,” and by himself as a “a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” Armstrong told CBS’ 60 Minutes in 2005 that, “I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work.”
When asked what it felt like to know his footprints will still be there in the moon dust centuries from now, he replied: “I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up.”
The Apollo 11 mission would ultimately be Armstrong’s last. A year later he was reassigned to NASA desk duty, and soon after that he returned to his native Ohio — where at the age of 16, well before he ever earned his driver’s license, he’d gotten his flying permit — to teach engineering.
More recently, Armstrong had joined many of the space program’s other unforgettable names in noting his severe concerns about President Obama’s “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.” That said, we’re sure the great astronaut must’ve found some small joy in the technically daunting landing of the Mars rover Curiosity on the red planet earlier this month, presaging, many hope, the first manned mission to Mars.
But in the meantime, Neil Armstrong’s family just asks (via Al Roker’s Twitter feed) that, “the next time you walk out on a clear night and see the moon smiling, think of Neil and give him a wink.”