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 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT