Remembering Neil Armstrong, and what he meant to a generation of Americans

By John Keller
I remember as a kid back in the late '60s how friends and I liked to argue over who was the most famous person in the world. Several names popped up in those debates: Wilt Chamberlain, who had scored more points in a basketball game than anyone else; Bob Hayes who at the time was considered to be the world's fastest man; and President John F. Kennedy, whose presence we still felt keenly after his assassination in Dallas.

When my fourth-grade school year ended in June 1969 our arguments over who was the most famous were still strong and animated. When we returned to our classrooms the next fall, however, all debate had ended, for everyone knew by then who the most famous person in the world was: it was Neil Armstrong , who less than two months before had become the first human to set foot on the moon during America's space program .

I remembered those heady days when I learned that Neil Armstrong -- the undisputed most-famous person of my childhood -- died last Saturday at the age of 82.

The end of our most-famous debate that fall 43 years ago didn't apply just to new fifth-graders in their spiffy new school clothes. The first moon landing was an incredibly big thing for most Americans, as only those who were around at the time can understand.

My parents and grandparents always could say where they were when they first heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Members of younger generations than mine could tell you where they were the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. For the same token, there's no one of my generation who couldn't tell you where he or she was that day July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 lunar module, touched down on the moon's surface.


It was lunchtime on a Sunday as I camped with my family near a Southern California beach, and we listened to the moon landing on a transistor radio. Everyone at that campground was doing the same thing, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

The actual first moon walk didn't happen for several hours after the landing. We'd packed up and arrived back at home by then. It was just after supper, and my family huddled around our black-and-white television set to watch a grainy live-TV broadcast of Armstrong as he slowly descended the ladder of the lunar module. When he set foot on the lunar surface, I remember looking up at the clock. Then I wrote the time and date down on a scrap of paper, because in my heart I knew that I might never see such a momentous thing again.

... and perhaps I haven't.

As for Armstrong himself, he was an unlikely "most-famous" person. He did things quietly, remained largely out of the public eye. He didn't sign endorsement deals, appear in commercials, or on cereal boxes. Still, he was the most-famous person in the world, and as kids we idolized him.

He represented the culmination of America's race to the moon, begun less than a decade before with John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. Despite that era's continuing carnage in Vietnam, Americans were riveted by the Apollo program. There was much more a sense of "we" as Americans then than there seems to be now.

Things did change after Armstrong's voyage. After he and colleague Buzz Aldrin came home from the moon, somehow the space program's focus and sense-of-purpose quickly became diluted in the popular mind. There wasn't a clear answer to the question, "So we made it to the moon; what's next?"

The space program did have a few "what's next" initiatives, such as Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. Still, nothing even came close to the excitement we felt with Armstrong's first walk on the moon. Even today, it seems nothing really compares.

Maybe that's why -- at least in my mind -- Neil Armstrong remains the most famous person in the world.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

January 2014
Volume 25, Issue 1
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