(Reuters) – U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, who took a giant leap for mankind when he became the first person to walk on the moon, has died at the age of 82, his family said today.
The family said in a statement online that Armstrong died following complications from heart-bypass surgery he underwent earlier this month, just two days after his birthday on Aug. 5.
As commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. As he stepped on the dusty surface, Armstrong said: ““That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Those words endure as one of the best known quotes in the English language.
A bit of controversy still surrounds his famous quote. The broadcast did not have the “a” in “one small step for a man…” He and NASA insisted static had obscured the “a,” but after repeated playbacks, he admitted he may have dropped the letter.
Repeated attempts have been made using modern acoustic equipment to search for the missing letter, with one Australian scientist claiming to have found it. Armstrong has expressed a preference, however, that written quotations include the “a” in parentheses.
The Apollo 11 astronauts’ euphoric moonwalk provided Americans with a sense of achievement in the space race with Cold War foe the Soviet Union and at a time when Washington was engaged in a bloody war with the communists in Vietnam.
Neil Alden Armstrong was 38 years old at the time and even though he had fulfilled one of mankind’s age-old quests that placed him at the pinnacle of human achievement, he did not revel in his accomplishment. He even seemed frustrated by the acclaim it brought.
“I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work,” Armstrong said in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program in 2005.
He once was asked how he felt knowing his footprints would likely stay on the moon’s surface for thousands of years. “I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up,” he said.
A VERY PRIVATE MAN
James Hansen, author of “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” told CBS: “All of the attention that … the public put on stepping down that ladder onto the surface itself, Neil never could really understand why there was so much focus on that.”
The Apollo 11 moon mission turned out to be Armstrong’s last space flight. The next year he was appointed to a desk job, being named NASA’s deputy associate administrator for aeronautics in the office of advanced research and technology.
Armstrong’s post-NASA life was a very private one. He took no major role in ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the moon landing. “He’s a recluse’s recluse,” said Dave Garrett, a former NASA spokesman.
“Howard Hughes had nothing on him,” he said, speaking of the exceedingly private aviator.
Hansen said stories of Armstrong dreaming of space exploration as a boy were apocryphal, although he was long dedicated to flight. “His life was about flying. His life was about piloting,” Hansen said.
He left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) a year after Apollo 11 to become a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
DECLINES OFFERS TO RUN FOR OFFICE
After his aeronautical career, Armstrong was approached by political groups but unlike former astronauts John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt who became U.S. senators, he declined all offers.
Armstrong made a rare public appearance several years ago when he testified to a congressional hearing against President Barack Obama administration’s plans to buy rides from other countries and corporations to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Armstrong also said that returning humans to the moon was not only desirable, but necessary for future exploration — even though NASA says it is no longer a priority.
He lived in the Cincinnati area with his wife, Carol.
“We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away,” the family said in their statement. “Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.”
His family expressed hope that young people around the world would be inspired by Armstrong’s feat to push boundaries and serve a cause greater than themselves.
“The next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink,” the family said.
Michael Collins, a crew mate of Armstrong’s on the Apollo 11 flight, said through NASA’s senior spokesman, Bob Jacobs: “He was the best, and I will miss him terribly.”
The space agency sent out a brief statement in the wake of the news, saying it “offers its condolences on today’s passing of Neil Armstrong, former test pilot, astronaut, and the first man on the moon.”
Armstrong is survived by his two sons, a stepson and stepdaughter, 10 grandchildren, a brother and a sister, NASA said.