Neil Armstrong the reluctant hero joins the immortals

He stands alongside those other great frontiersmen of history like Columbus, Magellan, Cook, Livingstone and Amundsen. But to have been the first to take his self-described “small step” on to a world beyond our own gave him a unique position in the pantheon of explorers that he never found comfortable. A modest man of exceptional qualities, Armstrong spent much of the 43 years since Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon living uneasily with the demands of global fame.

Few people aged over 50 can fail to recall the sense of awe that accompanied the moment on July 21, 1969, when Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind. In some ways, he was a player in a bigger political game – the front-runner in a space race spawned by the Cold War and designed to show that Western capitalism could always trump Soviet collectivism. When it happened, it transcended politics. Yes, it was an astonishing American technological achievement, and the Stars and Stripes remains the only flag on the lunar surface; but it was also, as Armstrong said, mankind’s triumph. And the image that Apollo 11 sent back of the Earth rising in an alien darkness served to remind us of the delicate isolation of our planetary home.

However, what was supposed to be the start of man’s great space adventure turned out to be its high point. The product of eight years of research and development costing $150 billion (at today’s prices) and involving 400,000 people, the Apollo programme would only fly another six missions before being wound up in 1972.

Have we lost our appetite for exploration, our desire always to know what is beyond the horizon? On Mars even now, a vehicle appropriately called Curiosity is trundling around a crater looking for signs of microbiological life, and yet the world seems indifferent to the extraordinary images it is beaming back to Earth. Recent pictures of astronauts carrying out repairs to the International Space Station merited little attention when once they would have had us all gawping with astonishment. Perhaps we are inured to human endeavour on a grand scale, happier with the smaller, more insular worlds that many now inhabit courtesy of one of the great spin-offs of the space race – the internet. Armstrong once said he did not wish to play the part of a “living memorial” and shunned the heroic status accorded him. In death, he will have no option: his is a name never to be forgotten.

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