Neal Armstrong described himself once, saying, "I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer." But he was also a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA's forerunner, an astronaut, and on July 20, 1969 he became the first man to step on the moon.
We will always remember his words as he stepped from the ladder onto the moon's surface: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Armstrong, who died Saturday at the age of 82, was a true American hero, but always a modest one. He recognized that his achievement was the result of the work of thousands of scientists, engineers, and fellow astronauts.
He was privileged to be the point man in the effort that had begun just 12 years earlier when the Soviet Union started the "space race" by launching the satellite "Sputnik" into orbit. President John F. Kennedy had set the goal of sending a man to the moon. That idea had only been the stuff of science fiction and pulp magazines, but the advances in science and engineering that made the first moonwalk possible were monumental, one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century.
Armstrong's courage and skill, shared by his fellow astronauts, will put him forever in the constellation of America's greatest.