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.

Previous Blog Posts

Capital Hill budget deal could restore tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon

Tue Dec 17 13:15:00 CST 2013

Hacker drone story a cautionary tale about the need for unmanned vehicle data security

Tue Dec 10 09:46:00 CST 2013

Lack of money for systems upgrades threatens to maintain wind-farm radar dead spots

Tue Dec 03 10:36:00 CST 2013

Engineering support contracts indicate the Pentagon is sinking into the Mothball Strategy

Tue Nov 26 06:57:00 CST 2013

The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

Tue Nov 19 08:53:00 CST 2013

Navy's newest destroyers evolve to fill traditional battleship roles

Tue Nov 12 11:54:00 CST 2013

International suspicions of U.S. encryption technology putting defense companies in a bind

Tue Nov 05 11:24:00 CST 2013

Defense industry left guessing as Army struggles forward with an unclear mission

Tue Oct 29 09:45:00 CDT 2013

These are tough times for the combat vehicle and vetronics industries

Tue Oct 22 04:22:00 CDT 2013

Is the government shutdown a harbinger of more ominous things to come?

Tue Oct 15 11:21:00 CDT 2013

Government shutdown reduces military contracting, increasing pressure on U.S. defense industry

Mon Oct 07 12:17:00 CDT 2013

Potential good news: has U.S. defense spending finally bottomed-out?

Tue Oct 01 13:02:00 CDT 2013

Is robotics revolution the first glimpse of a fundamental change in human evolution?

Tue Sep 24 09:46:00 CDT 2013

Obsolescent parts: are we enhancing military readiness or creating a hollow force?

Tue Sep 17 15:46:00 CDT 2013

For the high-tech warfighter, the future of electronics-laden uniforms is here

Tue Sep 10 11:26:00 CDT 2013

New generation of embedded computing thermal management in development at GE

Tue Sep 03 09:44:00 CDT 2013

Trading bus stops for credit cards: how far embedded computing has come in three decades

Tue Aug 27 10:59:00 CDT 2013

Unmanned vehicle industry stands at the doorstep of a fundamental transformation

Tue Aug 20 11:09:00 CDT 2013

AUVSI 2013, one of the biggest unmanned vehicles shows in the world, opens this week in Washington

Tue Aug 13 05:35:00 CDT 2013

The Washington Post, under Jeff Bezos, could lead the way for media in the 21st Century

Tue Aug 06 09:47:00 CDT 2013

Are costs and vulnerabilities making military leaders nervous about satellite communications?

Tue Jul 30 11:07:00 CDT 2013

Unmanned aircraft carrier that travels beneath the waves may be in the Navy's future

Tue Jul 23 05:20:00 CDT 2013

Electronic warfare programs kick into high gear with a flurry of contract activity

Tue Jul 16 08:03:00 CDT 2013

How vulnerable are U.S. Navy vessels to advanced anti-ship cruise missiles?

Tue Jul 09 07:03:00 CDT 2013

First came VHSIC, then came MIMIC, and now comes ACE to push electronics technology

Tue Jul 02 09:16:00 CDT 2013

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 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, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

July 2015
Volume 26, Issue 7

All Access Sponsors

Download Our Apps




Connect with Us


Military & Aerospace Electronics

Weekly newsletter covering technical content, breaking news and product information

Cyber Security

Monthly newsletter covering cyber warfare, cyber security, information warfare, and information security technologies, products, contracts, and procurement opportunities

Defense Executive

Monthly newsletter covering business news and strategic insights for executive managers

Electronic Warfare

Quarterly newsletter covering technologies and applications in electronic warfare, cyber warfare, optical warfare, and spectrum warfare.

Embedded Computing Report

Monthly newsletter covering news on embedded computing in aerospace, defense and industrial-rugged applications

Unmanned Vehicles

Monthly newsletter covering news updates for designers of unmanned vehicles