Skip to main content

Neil Armstrong, a hero who shunned fame

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 8:22 PM EDT, Mon August 27, 2012
Neil Armstrong speaks during a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin on Capitol Hill in Washington on November 16, 2011. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg /LANDOV Photographers/Source: ROGER L. WOLLENBERG/UPI /Landov
Neil Armstrong speaks during a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin on Capitol Hill in Washington on November 16, 2011. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg /LANDOV Photographers/Source: ROGER L. WOLLENBERG/UPI /Landov
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Neil Armstrong was a star test pilot, cool and decisive under stress
  • He says Armstrong chose not to exploit his historic role as the first man on the moon
  • After leaving NASA, he taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati
  • Seymour: Armstrong refused to sell out himself, or his legacy, despite the temptations of fame

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- What was, in retrospect, most heroic about Neil Alden Armstrong, who died Saturday at age 82, was the manner in which he shied away from the spoils and trappings of heroism itself.

Being the first man on the moon, after all, would seem to place you on top of the world, providing a kind of lifetime pass to wherever you wanted to go -- and whatever you wanted to be.

Thinking of running for office? Name the district, state or country and it's yours.

Maybe you'd like to go into business. The line of people with dotted lines to sign stretches from here to infinity. And so do their wallets.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Show biz? Hmmm -- that's a tough one. You and Bob Hope weren't exactly magic together on that USO tour. But, well, we can make something happen, right? This is America, after all, and you are the Greatest American Hero!

Armstrong's one small step resonated for all mankind

But Armstrong, a native of Wapakoneta, Ohio, so steeped in flying that his idea of winding down was piloting gliders in his spare time, wanted exactly none of those options. Having his choice of any possible future after leaving NASA in 1971, he chose to go back to his home state and teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

It was an unusual, but, by then, hardly surprising move by the laconic commander of Apollo 11, the July 1969 mission that fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's mandate for an American lunar landing within a decade. Before, during and after that epochal journey, Armstrong came across as something of an enigma to global media anxious to make him the brightest star on Earth.

John Glenn: Armstrong dared greatly
2009: Hear from Neil Armstrong
'One giant leap for mankind'
2011: Armstrong among astronauts honored

This was going to be tough. Rather than having the jaunty wit of a Wally Schirra, the affable magnetism of a John Glenn or the flinty swagger of a Chuck Yeager, Neil Armstrong came across as nothing more than the earnest, no-nonsense engineer he actually was. No artifice, no flash, no -- well, frankly, no star power to speak of.

Within the fraternity of test pilots, however, Armstrong was among the brightest of stars. Before being chosen in 1962 as one of the "Group II" astronauts -- which included Apollo 13 commander James Lovell along with such legends as Frank Borman, Pete Conrad and John Young -- Armstrong was one of the elite pilots selected to fly the X-15 rocket plane up to five times the speed of sound and toward the edge of space.

Remembering Neil Armstrong

And that no-nonsense demeanor served Armstrong well in his work. As command pilot of the March 1966 Gemini 8 mission, the first in which one spacecraft docked with another vehicle in orbit, Armstrong showed cool composure when a malfunctioning thruster caused his two-man spacecraft to tumble end over end.

His decision-making may have prematurely ended the mission, but it saved his life, co-pilot David Scott's life, and possibly the whole American space program. And yet, all many people remembered about that flight was that its mishap pre-empted that night's broadcast of CBS's "Lost in Space."

Armstrong's seemingly casual reaction to peril left his NASA colleagues in awe when, in May 1968, he picked exactly the right time to eject from a lunar landing simulator that had spun out of control. His only injury was a bitten tongue sustained after parachuting to safety. He was back at his office, working, that same afternoon.

Few of these facts were widely known by the public when Armstrong, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, was picked for the lunar landing mission. All people knew about the astronaut who would turn out to be the first man on the moon was what they saw. And what they saw mystified them.

In press conferences and interviews before the Apollo 11 flight, Armstrong spoke mostly in clipped, dry sentences, almost as if he were transmitting radio messages from a distance while still on Earth. Norman Mailer, assigned by Life magazine to cover the flight, found him in press conferences to be "extraordinarily remote ... apparently in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to unravel."

Even those famous first words upon stepping off the Lunar Module -- "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind." -- resounded to a waiting world as tentative, fragmented; almost as if they had to be pulled from Armstrong after a struggle. Yet over the span of 40-plus years, those eleven words have achieved iconic stature in no small way because of the unassuming manner in which they were uttered.

Armstrong taught at Cincinnati for eight years before leaving in 1979, characteristically without explanation. He was hardly a recluse afterward, though he maintained a relatively low profile; lower, anyway, than you'd expect for the first man on the moon. He sat on boards of banks and corporations and served on various commissions, including the one investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster. (That panel included another space pioneer, Sally Ride, who died little more than a month ago.)

Obituaries 2012: The lives they've lived

He was cautious about giving interviews and autographs, hawkish about the use of his name and of anything related to his Apollo 11 mission. While his fellow Apollo 11 moon-walker, Buzz Aldrin, seemed up for anything from "Dancing With The Stars" to "Transformers 3" (and he's been a wry and inspirational figure to have on the scene), Armstrong kept his distance from the media circus beyond authorizing a biography, "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong," in 2005.

If he raised his voice in public at all, it had only to do with space exploration and his growing sorrow over America's gradual withdrawal from taking the initiative in manned flight.

Still, by his ninth decade on planet Earth, Armstrong seemed to be more relaxed in public and generally more visible than he used to be. If anything, his time hugging the corners of fame made him seem even more admirable as a man who refused to sell himself or his legacy out, no matter what temptations were available in a celebrity-crazed culture.

For one spellbinding week 43 summers ago, Neil Armstrong did something that once seemed unimaginable. Since then, he lived his life in a way that now seems improbable.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT