A hero to millions, Neil Armstrong has consistently shunned the limelight. To mark the 40th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing, author Andrew Smith travelled across America to discover why the man who first set foot upon the Moon remains such an enigma.
His words on being the first person ever to set foot on the Moon have been written into soundbite history – but in the four decades since Neil Armstrong became a household name, he has also increasingly become an enigma.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Armstrong has refused to cash in on his fame and seemingly done everything in his power to diminish it.
So what has made Neil Armstrong such a reluctant hero, unsusceptible to the normal trappings of celebrity? And why won’t he speak about his historic journey?
In his quest to uncover the man behind the spacesuit, Andrew Smith, author of Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, decided to travel across America to meet people who have had an impact on Armstrong’s life.
His conclusion is that Armstrong, now 78, believes simply that he did not deserve the attention.
“There were 400,000 people that worked on that [Moon landing] programme in various different ways and he thinks he didn’t deserve all the credit just because he did the flying part,” says Smith.
But Armstrong became a celebrity overnight. The Apollo 11 Moon landing marked a seismic shift in space exploration during a time when the world was captivated by space. It was watched by the largest television audience of its time, and President Nixon put in a congratulatory phone call just after the US flag was planted.
On the astronauts’ return, Nasa sent them on a world tour.
Although Neil Armstrong initially went along with the celebrations, he always remained aloof; an elusive presence who preferred to talk about facts rather than feelings.
He started to decline speeches and interviews, eventually refusing to sign autographs and shying away from being photographed in public.
“To my knowledge he has done two television interviews in the last 40 years – and he says nothing about what he felt about anything. He will talk about matters of fact and that’s it,” says Smith. The author has been repeatedly refused an interview with Armstrong despite many requests, although the pair have had e-mail correspondence.
“And he didn’t want to profit from it financially – even though a lot of the other Moon walkers have done – and amazingly he’s stood by that. An auction house told me that if Armstrong spent just one afternoon signing autographs he could make a million dollars, but he’s always refused.”
Two years after his historic journey, in August 1971, Armstrong left Nasa and decided to become a teacher.
“Ostensibly, it was a very strange decision. He could have done anything,” says Smith.
But if Armstrong thought a small aerospace engineering department at the University of Cincinnati would provide a refuge, he was to be disappointed.
“His old boss told me when he first arrived, he spent two hours every single day signing autographs for members of staff and students. Apparently there was a window right at the top of the wall and people used to go and make human pyramids just to look into his office.
“He dealt with it but he didn’t like it, he couldn’t walk across the campus without being constantly approached. He ended up going and spending a lot of his time flying, on his own, to get away from it.”
Neil Armstrong’s decision to keep a low profile contrasts with the man he shared the limelight with on that historic lunar landing.
Buzz Aldrin has become the face of space, courting media attention with a series of high-publicity manoeuvres including a Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space computer game and making a guest appearance in The Simpsons.
And what about the poetic prose “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” that slips off most people’s tongues almost as easily as Shakespeare’s famous lines “to be or not to be”?
Whether Armstrong was fed the line by a press officer or it was his own musing is the subject of much speculation, but one of his oldest friends has his own theory about its origin.
“‘Kotcho’ Solacoff says they used to play the game Mother May I? (also commonly known as Grandmother’s Footsteps) – where you take small steps or giant steps – in the playground. He thinks it came from that. …