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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT