Neil Armstrong, who died today following heart surgery, never wanted to be remembered simply as the first man on the moon.
Once credited with the most recognized name in the world, Armstrong avoided the outsized celebrity of the early NASA astronauts, whose storied missions not only advanced a US profile in space but also helped define the cold-war struggle with the Soviet Union, whose 1957 Sputnik launch stunned the world.
The images of the first moonwalk with Buzz Aldrin July 20, 1969, marked the high point of the US manned space program. His signature, and often misquoted, line – "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" – soared to iconic status.
But Armstrong, who also flew combat missions in Korea, brushed aside all talk of hero status, at least for himself.
"We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work," he said in a 2007 interview with "60 Minutes." As for all the celebrity: "I don't deserve it," he said.
After commanding the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong took a desk job at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, then taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati, served on several corporate boards, and worked out of his farm in southwest Ohio. He said he regretted not spending the time he wanted to with his family.
"I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer," he said in a rare public appearance in February 2000, cited by The Associated Press. "And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession."
He also regretted that the US space program did not make more progress than it did. "I fully expected that by the end of the century we would have achieved substantially more than we did," he told "60 Minutes." The end of the cold war also marked the end of the drive for space dominance, he said. "When we lost the competition, we lost the public will to continue."
In 2010, he came out of retirement to make a case before the US Congress to restore funding and a vision for the US space program and a workforce he described as "confused and disconsolate" by the termination of the 30-year space shuttle program, layoffs of thousands of aerospace workers, and the absence of a new US space strategy.
Public policy must be guided by the recognition that we live in a technologically driven world, he told a House panel. "Our choices are to lead, try to keep up, or get out of the way" he said. "A lead once lost is very difficult to regain."
"Neil Armstrong understood that we should reach beyond the stars," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, a former NASA shuttle astronaut, in a statement. "His 'one giant leap for mankind' was taken by a giant of a man."
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who also calls Cincinnati his hometown, said of Armstrong: "A true hero has returned to the heavens to which he once flew. Neil Armstrong blazed trails not just for America, but for all of mankind."
"Ohio has lost one of her proudest sons," he said in a statement. "Humanity has gained a legend."