Neil Armstrong: The pioneer of space exploration

The epic landing placed Neil Armstrong on the pinnacle of human achievement.

Liji Varghese

The Moon – which has been the motif of many literary and artistic works, remained a mystery for a long along time - until a man set his foot on the lunar surface intertwining history and fiction.

His words, “That`s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”, went on to become one of the most endured phrases in the history.

As the world watched the televised grainy black and white footage of Neil Armstrong, the then 38-year-old US astronaut, setting his foot on the unexplored Moon on July 21, 1969 - an unheralded hero was born. The epic landing placed Armstrong on the pinnacle of human achievement.

The mission that marked the highest point in the era of space missions also gave America an edge over their rival Soviet Union in the space race, which had reigned the world of space exploration for over a decade with the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

Apollo 11, the fifth manned mission of NASA`s Apollo program was launched on July 16, 1969, from Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida. With Neil Armstrong as the commander, the three-member team including American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, landed on moon on July 20, 1969. Six hours later, on July 21, history was created with Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to step onto the lunar surface. Twenty minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong making himself the second man to land on moon. Both the astronauts spent two and a half hours exploring the lunar surface. The third member, Michael Collins, however, remained alone in lunar orbit in the Command Module.

Armstrong, a former Navy combat pilot and civilian test pilot, who flew 78 missions during the Korean War, never revelled in his achievement and the heroic status handed over to him after his epic lunar landing. He avoided public spotlight and chose to lead a private life with his family.

In an interview on CBS`s "60 Minutes" program in 2005, Armstrong said, "I guess we all like to be recognised not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work".

Being reclusive, Armstrong never understood the hype created around his achievement. On being asked as to how he felt about his footprints staying on the moon’s surface for thousands of years, the legend replied, "I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up".

Armstrong describing his euphoric stay on moon said, "It`s an interesting place to be. I recommend it."

After the Apollo 11 mission, which was also his last, Armstrong took up a desk job at NASA as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics in the office of advanced research and technology.

After a year, he resigned from NASA in 1971 and took up a teaching position with the University of Cincinnati. He acted as the spokesman of many companies and also served on several corporate boards.

Armstrong, who was reluctant to be in the ever-glaring public eye, made a rare appearance in 2010, criticizing the decision to cancel the Ares 1 launch vehicle and the Constellation moon landing program. He criticized President Obama`s NASA plans and warned that the US risked losing its leadership in space flight.

In an open public letter, he noted, "For the United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature".

Armstrong insisted on returning humans to the moon saying it was not only desirable, but necessary for future exploration.

Speaking to CBS on the US space programs, Armstrong said, “The end of the Cold War also marked the end of the drive for space dominance. When we lost the competition, we lost the public will to continue."

He even said that he was willing to offer his services as commander on Mars mission, in a speech during the Science & Technology Summit in The Hague in 2010.

Neil Armstrong, described by many as one of the greatest American heroes, has not only left a mark in time and space but has been immortalized forever as the forefather of space exploration. The world will always remember him not just for his great achievement but for the way he led a dignified life till the end.

"Neil was among the greatest of American heroes -- not just of his time, but of all time," said President Barack Obama.

Armstrong born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930, died at the age of 82 following complications from heart-bypass surgery.

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