If any man should have obtained the status of royalty as a celebrity in the modern United States, it was Neil Armstrong. Being the first human ever to walk on the moon, uttering a phrase so brilliantly encompassing and understated it will echo in history books through the ages, he could have kept his face on tabloids and in magazines the rest of his days.
But Armstrong valued dignity more than celebrity. He understood the teamwork that brought him to the lunar surface, and he never sought to hog the spotlight. "I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession," he said during a rare public appearance in 2000.
His modesty and courage make Armstrong one of the legitimate heroes of American history. By saying very little, he spoke volumes of what it means to achieve greatness, and when he did choose to speak, people listened in rapt attention.
His passing this weekend leaves a void that is felt far beyond the NASA community.
Today's Americans may have difficulty appreciating what a feat it was to set foot on the moon in 1969, and then to bring the astronauts who had gone there safely home. President John F. Kennedy had set the goal of accomplishing this within the decade of the 1960s during a speech in 1961. At the time, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States in virtually every step of early space flight. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had just become the first human to successfully fly to space, and the U.S. could boast only a sub-orbital flight.
For the United States to surpass the Soviets and land a man on the moon just eight years later was an amazing example of public resolve and determination.
The Apollo 11 landing on the moon was, as the Associated Press accurately put it, "the most daring of the 20th century's scientific expeditions." By today's standards, the mission had primitive means of contact with the earth, its details handed by a team of pencil-toting engineers and computer power that would be embarrassed by just about any modern hand-held device.
A worldwide audience watched the landing with equal measures of excitement and disbelief. This was a victory for the United States and NASA, but it also was a victory for the human race and its seemingly limitless capabilities.
Armstrong obviously was aware of this. His famous first line from the moon, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," was devoid of nationalism or any hint of the cold war raging at home. It was a statement for all people of the earth.
With the blue globe of the world in the lunar sky, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin paused to leave a patch on the moon's surface commemorating both the NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died doing their jobs.
In a day when American astronauts rely on Russian spacecraft to travel to and from a space station, and when old Soviet spacecraft sit in open display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, it can be easy to forget what this all meant.
Now the world has lost the man whose shoes left prints that will never fade. May the memory of his accomplishment, and the dignified way he lived in the shadows of it, never fade, either.