“One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words and left his footprint on history when he became the first human to walk on the Earth’s moon.
That step was the culmination of the work of thousands of Americans who had labored furiously for years to reach the audacious goal of getting a man safely to the moon and back.
It takes moxie to take a journey of 240,000 miles carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation – and perhaps all mankind – on your back. Neil Armstrong had just that kind of moxie. Here’s how:
Moxie knows where it belongs.
Armstrong just might have been born to reach for the stars. He first touched down to Earth on August 5, 1930, in Wapakoneta, Ohio just 60 miles from Dayton, the hometown of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. His destiny seemed written in the skies; his name, Neil, means “clouds.”
His own fascination with flight took wing early on. His father took him for a ride in a “Tin Goose” when he was just five or six years old, and by his sixteenth birthday, he’d earned his pilot’s license and taken his first flight. He learned to fly before he learned to drive.
Armstrong went on to become a Naval aviator and flew 78 missions during the Korean War. After serving he touched down long enough to earn his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University before becoming an experimental research test pilot. The rest, as they say, is history.
Armstrong spent the next decade and a half testing the most advanced aircraft and spacecraft of the time. He applied and was accepted into NASA’s second class of astronauts in 1962 and became part of the Gemini and Apollo programs. His deft hands were at the controls when the Eagle touched down on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
After traveling a couple hundred thousand miles to the moon, where do you go next? For Armstrong, the answer was “home.”
A year after traveling about as far away from Earth as possible, Armstrong returned to Ohio. He bought a farm and settled into a quiet life teaching at the University of Cincinnati just 40 miles away. For the rest of his life, his orbit would be centered around his home in the heartland. From all accounts, he lived a quiet and unassuming life. He never sought out attention, preferring to focus on his family and career.
It takes moxie to make it to the moon, and it takes moxie to make your way home. Armstrong had both.
Moxie doesn’t have to make a lot of noise to be heard.
Several months ago, eight of the astronauts who manned Apollo flights gathered for a photograph. Most are dressed in dignified black tie, with one notable exception.
Buzz Aldrin is decked out in a flashy silver suit emblazoned with rockets. His feet were adorned with American flag-themed socks. It’s no exaggeration to say that Aldrin stole the show.
While Buzz Aldrin notably embraced the spotlight after the historic Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong shunned the spotlight. You’ll have to search hard to find red carpet appearances and interviews featuring Armstrong.
Where he did show up was every day in the classroom teaching. For ten years, he nurtured young minds in the classrooms and hallways and his office at Rhodes Hall in the University of Cincinnati. Though he went to great lengths to avoid the media and fans, he was by all accounts very accessible to his students.
“For his students, he couldn’t have been any more approachable,” said UC alum Ralph Spitzen in this interview for the university’s magazine. “He was always willing to sit down with you and answer any questions. “He was a great aviator who was comfortable making paper airplanes in UC’s Armory Fieldhouse and a professor who enjoyed having beers with students after final exams. He showed frustration when a NASA administrator interrupted class but tolerated the antics of our class when we got restless or when a famous Italian actress converted our Baldwin Hall classroom into a photo-shoot backdrop.”
Armstrong had every reason to enjoy a high-flying life (see: Aldrin) but he kept his feet planted firmly on the ground. He always saw himself as just a regular guy doing the very best he could do at his job. He did not measure himself by one moment or by one mission, but by the sum of his life.
“I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work,” he said in a rare interview with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes.
It takes moxie to fly under the radar, and Armstrong had it.
Moxie answers back.
Fans from around the world wrote an amazing 75,000 letters to Armstrong. The letters expressed appreciation and admiration for his accomplishments, and many asked for autographs, pictures, and mementos.
Armstrong couldn’t possibly answer all those letters, but when he chose to answer, his responses were revealing.
Most notably, he wrote a letter to a young boy at the request of the child’s mother. The child did not know he was terminally ill. It was his wish to hear from his hero.
The letter must have moved Armstrong deeply because he responded almost immediately. His letter to the boy arrived just in time. The young man passed away just hours after receiving it.
Armstrong’s warm, timely response was perhaps born out of his own grief. Years before he set foot on the moon, he was a young dad whose little girl was dying due to an inoperable brain tumor. She died when she was just three years old. He said little about his grief over the years, and perhaps even threw himself into his work more deeply as a way to escape it. But this act of empathy for a dying child and his mother speaks volumes about the depth of Armstrong’s own grief and his compassion for others going through the same.
What inspires you about Armstrong’s moxie?