NASA did not script Neil Armstrong’s words for the moment when he first pressed his boot onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. What to say was left up to the mission commander.
Pete Conrad of Apollo 12 made a joke of his first step on the moon to win a bet. Neil Armstrong was personally responsible for giving his Apollo 11 moon landing its particular character of serious, soft-spoken honor, by how he conducted himself and with the words he gave to history as he became the first man on the moon. “That’s one small step for [a] man,” Mr. Armstrong said, “one giant leap for mankind.”
His words now seem so perfect as to have been inevitable, but it was far from inevitable such a statement would mark this moment. As he spoke those words the United States had just won the moon race, a contest it had entered over a decade earlier stumbling with repeated losses and humiliations as the Soviet Union demonstrated its technological superiority again and again in space.
Through colossal effort and a cost of some $24 billion, the United States had redeemed its pride with Apollo 11, and the moment Mr. Armstrong’s boot hit the moondust was the exact moment we made our touchdown.
At this singular achievement NASA or the president might have been expected to do an end-zone dance, to gloat over our total victory, to rub it in the face of our opponents. Or the “right stuff” hot-shot pilot making the step might have indulged his ego and glorified himself as the personification of that victory.
Al Shepard, commander of Apollo 14, indeed chose to mark his first step by saying, “Al is on the surface.” Neil Armstrong minimized his own role as he always did, and instead handed this incredibly hard-won victory to “all mankind.” He clarified his sentiments shortly later, saying “It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States but men of peace of all nations.”
How astonishing this is in retrospect. The success of the Apollo program showed this country that if it truly set its full effort to a task, it could accomplish anything. Neil Armstrong, at the absolute center of the project, showed us we could do it without ego, and with dignity, and in so doing rise — both literally and figuratively — to our greatest heights.
That elevation of spirit, that humility, that generosity, that dedication to duty: The moon landing means these things today because Neil Armstrong made it so. For the landing, we owe our gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of dedicated Americans who built the rockets and made the systems work, and to the visionary president who set Apollo in motion. But for the perfect beauty of that one shining moment, we owe our thanks to Neil A. Armstrong of Wapakoneta, Ohio, and on this 37th anniversary of that day it is fitting that we salute the man.
DAVID WEST REYNOLDS
A space policy expert and the best-selling author of “APOLLO: The Epic Journey to the Moon.”