Much will be written about him in the next couple of days and there isn't much I can add to the telling of the grand story of his life. But I was extremely fortunate to have met Neil Armstrong twice, and so will share my personal stories.
The first time I met him was at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation's Apollo 14 Anniversary at the Kennedy Space Center in January 2011. When he walked into the room, you could hear everyone's voice drop to a whisper: "That's Neil Armstrong!" I confess to being a little star-struck. My wife, on the other hand, showed no fear and walked right up to him and said "I'd like to introduce you to my husband". He extended his hand graciously and we shook hands - but all I could really manage to get out was "It's a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your service and your work." I mean, what can you ask Neil Armstrong that he hasn't already been asked about 10 million times? I didn't want to look like a doofus asking him the same dumb question he got tired of answering by 1970. Unlike when I was a kid, I don't usually get all goo-gaw when meeting famous people, and when I sheepishly admitted to being a little flustered in meeting him, others at the event all said, essentially "So did we. It's Neil Armstrong - it's allowed."
The second time was just this last April, at the Apollo 16 anniversary at KSC. This time I wasn't the least bit nervous - although, he being who he was, it was hard to find him not surrounded by 6 or 8 people. Sara and I finally managed to find him with just his bodyguard, and we approached him. He had a gracious, modest, but no-nonsense demeanor, and I got to spend about two or three minutes one on one with him. We chatted a bit about the event, and then I asked him about the training sites they used in preparation for Apollo 11. Specifically, I asked "Which of all the training sites you and Buzz used were the most useful in preparing for the surface work on the mission?" He looked at me and squinted with an intense expression that I can only describe as Clint Eastwood-ian. I think he was trying to decide if that was a really smart question or a really dumb one. After thinking about 10 seconds, he said "You know, no one has ever asked me that question. I can’t think of one that was very similar at all.” I mentioned that I’m from Hawaii and that I know the Apollo astronauts used sites on Mauna Kea on the Big Island as a close lunar analogue site. He answered, “It was the moon. Very different.” At that moment – not because of my question – his bodyguard signaled that it was time for Mr. Armstrong to make his exit from the event, and Sara made a plea for one more photo. The bodyguard objected, but Neil graciously said, “Ok, one more.” And so we got our photo with Neil Armstrong.I am genuinely sad today. Though I didn’t know the man beyond those two short exchanges, like many others I felt a personal connection with him.
Just say the name “Neil Armstrong”. He is the very definition of inspiration and cool-as-a-cucumber courage. He wasn’t just cool-under-pressure – he was the ultimate cool under pressure character. Hemingway's fictional characters had nothing on Neil Armstrong. These days we throw out the word “hero” like candy to just about anyone who does anything remotely admirable, but he was the real deal.
I don't know how he came up with his first words on the surface of the moon, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." But they were inspired. Carl Sagan mused that in their voyages to the moon, the Apollo astronauts entered the realm of myth and legend. But Neil saw himself as a nerdy engineer who was just doing his job. Perhaps, but he is no less of a hero for that. As the first to venture to the moon’s vast, dangerous unknown, Neil Armstrong was our heroic representative making a giant leap into the unknown on behalf of all of us.
Thank you, Neil Armstrong.