Neil Armstrong: 'There Was Work to Do'

There is no American civilian more deserving of a state funeral than Neil Alden Armstrong. But to hold one, as some have suggested, would go against the modest ethic that Armstrong demonstrated his entire life.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Armstrong given his life - more than his flying dozens of combat missions in Korea that interrupted his undergraduate studies at Purdue University, more than his daring test piloting in the X-15, more than being the first human being to touch the surface of another celestial body -- was his complete humility. His job, as he saw it, was to push the limits of engineering and human imagination in order to advance mankind.

When Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned safely from their lunar odyssey, the world was theirs. Decades removed, it is difficult to imagine the adulation that Armstrong and his crew received during their post-flight goodwill tour. Neil Armstrong, 38 years of age, literally had the world at his feet. He had become, through a series of circumstance and preparation, perhaps the most famous man in the history of the world. He could have cashed in on his fame, on his accomplishment, or merely traded on his name for the remainder of his life. His desire? To work for NASA for a while longer and then go back home to Ohio to farm, fly, and teach aerospace engineering. That's it.

Armstrong's humility was not an affected "aw, shucks" false modesty. It was borne of a sense of self-worth achieved through accomplishment at the highest level in aviation engineering. Armstrong was self-confident and his mettle was tested to within an inch of his life on more than one occasion. Yet Armstrong was the living embodiment of the phrase "To thine own self be true."

Armstrong's most famous words of course, came when he set foot on the moon: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." And it has been said that his death is "one giant loss for mankind." That is true. But the essence of Armstrong was caught when asked about a poignant moment when he dropped a patch commemorating American and Soviet space explorers who died in the line of duty. He said of the moment: "It was special and memorable but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do."

There was work to do. Such was Armstrong's approach to his career. Armstrong's greatest accomplishment will never be forgotten as long as man roams the earth. He was one of a select few human beings who have flown farther and higher than any man. Yet he was the most grounded. That ethic  his ethic - should be emphasized just as much as his distinction as the first man on the moon as we remember his life.

Neil Armstrong certainly earned and deserves the grandest exit his country can bestow. But he would have been the first to eschew it. So in his honor, fly your flag at half-staff for this veteran, this pioneer, this American man, and, as Armstrong's family recommended, try to follow his example and give the moon a wink while you're at it.

Matthew May welcomes comments at may.matthew.t@gmail.com

There is no American civilian more deserving of a state funeral than Neil Alden Armstrong. But to hold one, as some have suggested, would go against the modest ethic that Armstrong demonstrated his entire life.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Armstrong given his life - more than his flying dozens of combat missions in Korea that interrupted his undergraduate studies at Purdue University, more than his daring test piloting in the X-15, more than being the first human being to touch the surface of another celestial body -- was his complete humility. His job, as he saw it, was to push the limits of engineering and human imagination in order to advance mankind.

When Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned safely from their lunar odyssey, the world was theirs. Decades removed, it is difficult to imagine the adulation that Armstrong and his crew received during their post-flight goodwill tour. Neil Armstrong, 38 years of age, literally had the world at his feet. He had become, through a series of circumstance and preparation, perhaps the most famous man in the history of the world. He could have cashed in on his fame, on his accomplishment, or merely traded on his name for the remainder of his life. His desire? To work for NASA for a while longer and then go back home to Ohio to farm, fly, and teach aerospace engineering. That's it.

Armstrong's humility was not an affected "aw, shucks" false modesty. It was borne of a sense of self-worth achieved through accomplishment at the highest level in aviation engineering. Armstrong was self-confident and his mettle was tested to within an inch of his life on more than one occasion. Yet Armstrong was the living embodiment of the phrase "To thine own self be true."

Armstrong's most famous words of course, came when he set foot on the moon: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." And it has been said that his death is "one giant loss for mankind." That is true. But the essence of Armstrong was caught when asked about a poignant moment when he dropped a patch commemorating American and Soviet space explorers who died in the line of duty. He said of the moment: "It was special and memorable but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do."

There was work to do. Such was Armstrong's approach to his career. Armstrong's greatest accomplishment will never be forgotten as long as man roams the earth. He was one of a select few human beings who have flown farther and higher than any man. Yet he was the most grounded. That ethic  his ethic - should be emphasized just as much as his distinction as the first man on the moon as we remember his life.

Neil Armstrong certainly earned and deserves the grandest exit his country can bestow. But he would have been the first to eschew it. So in his honor, fly your flag at half-staff for this veteran, this pioneer, this American man, and, as Armstrong's family recommended, try to follow his example and give the moon a wink while you're at it.

Matthew May welcomes comments at may.matthew.t@gmail.com

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