Armstrong remembered as 'reluctant hero'

CBS News

Neil Armstrong, the unassuming test pilot, family man and reluctant hero who will forever walk in history as the first man on the moon, was honored at the Washington National Cathedral Thursday, remembered as much for the quiet dignity he brought to his role as an enduring American icon as he was for his "giant leap for mankind" 43 years ago.

With family members looking on, along with his Apollo 11 crewmates Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, summed up the feelings of many in the crowd of some 1,500 when he said "Fate looked down kindly on us when she chose Neil to be the first to venture to another world."

Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, remembers Neil Armstrong, the first man, during a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral. (Credit: NASA)

"It could have been another, but it wasn't, and it wasn't for a reason," Cernan said. "No one, no one but no one could have accepted the responsibility of his remarkable accomplishment with more dignity and more grace than Neil Armstrong. He embodied all that is good and all that is great about America.

"Neil, wherever you are up there, almost half a century later, you have now shown once again the pathway to the stars. It's now for you a new beginning but for us, I will promise you it is not the end. And as you soar through the heavens beyond where even eagles dare to go, you can finally put out your hand and touch the face of God.

"Farewell my friend. You have left us far too soon. But we want you to know we do cherish the time we have had and shared together. God bless you, Neil."

John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall bow their heads in prayer remembering Neil Armstrong. Krall sang "Fly Me To The Moon" during a memorial service. (Credit: NASA)
Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930, Armstrong died Aug. 25 after complications following cardiovascular surgery. He was 82. His family held a private memorial service Aug. 31 and at Armstrong's request, the Navy will conduct a burial at sea on Friday. Details have not been released.

During the Korean War, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions for the Navy and then spent seven years as a test pilot, including pioneering flights in the X-15 rocket plane. He joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1962 and served as commander of the two-man Gemini 8 mission before landing on the moon as commander of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.

Stepping off he footpad of the lunar lander and onto the surface of the moon, Armstrong uttered 11 words -- 12 if you include a dropped or garbled "a" -- that instantly became synonymous with one of America's greatest technological triumphs: "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."

"Neil Armstrong was a sincerely humble man of impeccable integrity who reluctantly accepted his role as the first human being to walk on another world," Cernan said. "And when he did, he became a testament, a testament to all Americans of what can be achieved through vision and dedication. But in Neil's mind, it was never about Neil. It was about you, your mothers and fathers, your grandparents, about those of a generation ago who gave Neil the opportunity to call the moon his home.

"But never, ever, was it about Neil. Neil considered that he was just the tip of the arrow, always giving way to some 400,000 equally committed and dedicated Americans, Americans who were the strength behind the bow and always giving credit to those who just didn't know it couldn't be done. And therein lies the strength and the Neil was always willing to give of himself."

The public memorial service Thursday was attended by senior NASA managers, scores of Washington dignitaries and current and former astronauts, including John Glenn, the first American to reach orbit.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, said Armstrong's "courage, grace and humility ... lifted him above the stars" and that he "left more than footprints and a flag on the moon."

"He left a foundation for the future and paved the way for future American explorers to be first to step foot on Mars, or another planet," Bolden said. "Today, let us recommit ourselves to this grand challenge in honor of the man who first demonstrated it was possible to reach new worlds, and whose life demonstrated the quiet resolve and determination that makes every new and more difficult step into space possible."

Armstrong's shadow is visible in the foreground as he snapped a picture of the Apollo 11 lunar lander in the distance. (Credit: NASA)
After a soulful rendition of "Fly Me To The Moon" by jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, former Treasury Secretary John Snow remembered Armstrong as "a regular guy" and "the most reluctant of heroes."

"It was something he never sought, the public spotlight, and try as he did to deflect the credit and attention to others, the role of national hero, first man, nonetheless fell to him," Snow said. "And I think we as a nation can be thankful that it did. Because with his uncommon humility and grace, Neil captured the very best in the American character and he put it on display for the whole world to see. He's now slipped the bonds of Earth once again, but what a legacy he left."

Aldrin did not speak, but said in a statement earlier that "whenever I look at the moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone. Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us.

"I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history."

Collins participated in the service Thursday, leading the assembly in prayer, and wrote in The Washington Post that his crewmate "always seemed serious and businesslike, but you could make him laugh if you tried."

"It was real laughter, because Neil did not pretend," Collins wrote. "He was genuine through and through. He signaled displeasure with silence, never an outburst. He had high standards and stuck to them."