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Remembering Neil Armstrong

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September 24, 2012 | 1,843 views | Post a comment

By Nick Thomas

After more than 40 years in the public eye, beloved astronaut Neil Armstrong died on August 25 at the age of 82.

As the first human to set foot on the basaltic Moon plain known as the Sea of Tranquility in 1969, Armstrong was destined for history along with Apollo 11 comrades Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.

Of all the crew, Armstrong understandably received the most public attention over the years. But as lunar module pilot, Aldrin's role was obviously essential, too.

Being known as the second man on the Moon can’t have always been easy for him, although Aldrin hasn’t done too badly for himself over the years. Being more receptive to publicity than the shier Armstrong, Aldrin has left his mark on the world in many positive and creative ways.

Mike Collins, however, had to watch it all from afar. Alone in the command module, he will forever be known to many as “the other guy” left to circle the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin basked in the Moon landing limelight.

However, there would have been no Apollo 11 mission without Collins waiting to scoop up the Moon landing heros and returning them to Earth. Collins handled his place is history well and, like Armstrong and Aldrin, went on to become a great ambassador for science and space.

While Neil Armstrong and his team are universally recognized across the planet, most of us would turn to Wikipedia for the mission crews immediately before or after Apollo 11.

Apollo 10 carried Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan. Stafford and Cernan came tantalizingly close to being the first on the lunar surface (about 10 miles) during their practice descent for a landing, whilst Young remained orbiting in the command module. But the lunar gods were smiling on Young and Cernan; they walked on the Moon in later Apollo missions.

Pete Conrad and Alan Bean did the moon walk on Apollo 12.

Even though the Apollo 10 and 12 crews missed out on historic fame “by one Apollo,” they (and the other Apollo teams) went through all the preparation, training, and dangers of the Apollo 11 crew. Armstrong was the first to acknowledge his lesser-known colleagues’ contributions to the U.S. space program.

I never got to interview Neil Armstrong. I did, however, chat with Buzz Aldrin back in 2006 for a series of astronaut interviews I did for the Chicago Tribune.

"What was it like when you first stepped on the surface of the Moon?” I asked, knowing full-well, he had been asked this question a million times.

But he graciously answered: “My first words were ‘magnificent desolation,’ which indicated the magnificence of human beings who could build a machine to get them to the Moon and the desolation of the lunar surface which was truly unique compared to anything else I had seen on Earth.”

A dozen men walked on the Moon and experienced that same “magnificent desolation,” a term I find just as powerful as Armstrong’s oft quoted, famous words. But it was Armstrong’s first steps that elevated him to greatest space hero of all.

On his return from the Moon, fame followed Neil Armstrong’s earthly footsteps everywhere. Despite the celebrity pressure, or perhaps because of it, Armstrong tried to live a modest life -- a somewhat reluctant hero -- and accepted his place in history with grace and dignity.

His cremated ashes were scattered into the Atlantic Ocean on September 14. Even with his passing, he preferred burial at sea rather than being interred under a terrestrial monument for the masses to worship.

So rest easy Commander, on your final journey to this new sea of tranquility.

Thomas' features and columns have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at
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