By all accounts, Neil Armstrong sought a quiet life after he became the first human being to walk on the moon. Apparently he succeeded, because when he died Saturday, the news caused hardly a ripple. More Americans could identify that other moonwalker, Michael Jackson, also deceased, than Armstrong.
That's quite extraordinary, because Armstrong's achievement ranks as one of the greatest in the history of human exploration. He was the first Earthling, after all, to set foot on another celestial body. Even today, only 12 people have walked on the surface of the moon, the last in 1972. As exploring goes, there's nothing to top that. History books could rightfully place Armstrong ahead of Columbus, Magellan, Marco Polo, Cook, Amundsen, Hillary.
Armstrong undoubtedly realized that his feat was the result of an unprecedented collaborative effort made possible by tens of thousands of other people engineers, scientists, manufacturers who put the Apollo program and, ultimately, the landing module Eagle on the moon. The Wall Street Journal reported in 1994 that the moon landing program was so enormous that it required America's largest peacetime industrial buildup and that at its peak it consumed one cent of every dollar of U.S. economic output. Perhaps that's why Armstrong shunned the hoopla and hero-worship. He knew that he stood on more shoulders than any other explorer in history.
Still, great deeds must be personified. It fell to Neil Armstrong to be that person. When he descended that ladder from the lunar lander in July 1969, stepped onto the surface of the moon, and proclaimed, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," the nation's collective heart stopped in a mixture of pride and amazement.
Americans who were alive at that time and watched the moon in the night sky with one eye and their television sets with the other will never forget that moment. There has been nothing like it since, nor is there likely to be.
Since that last moon mission, no American has ventured farther than 300 miles above the Earth's surface.
This is not to say that the space program has stagnated. It hasn't. There have been tremendous accomplishments achieved with orbiting telescopes and robotic explorations of other planets. But in terms of national commitment, the final frontier is no longer America's top priority.
As science goes, that's not a bad thing. It was more beneficial to sequence the genome than to go to the moon. But in terms of adventure, Neil Armstrong and his time were out of this world.