The late Neil Armstrong was often prone to astonishing understatement.
Someone asked him at a press conference to try to describe his thoughts while standing on the surface of a celestial body a quarter-million miles away from Earth. "It's an interesting place," he said.
An interesting place? Do you think?
NASA chose well when it searched through the ranks of its highly trained astronaut corps to find the individual who'd be the first to set foot on the moon. Neil Armstrong was that man.
NOVA airs a special Wednesday night profiles this often-enigmatic individual. "First Man on the Moon" will be shown on Panhandle PBS at 8 p.m.
Armstrong landed on the moon with his lunar module companion Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969. He stepped onto the moon's surface and uttered the words he had prepared in advance: "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."
Indeed, this shy test pilot from Wapokaeta, Ohio stepped into the ages -- forever. His deft handling of the spacecraft as it approached the lunar surface often has been called one of the bravest bit of piloting in human history. The Eagle approached its designated landing area, but Armstrong -- in command of the ship -- noticed it was strewn with boulders. He took control of the stick and guided it in visually, looking for a safe place to touch down on the Sea of Tranquility.
"Houston, Tranquility Base here; the Eagle has landed," he told NASA ground controllers, who then erupted into cheers.
Armstrong's selection came amid a bit of concern over worldwide public opinion. The United States had engaged in a race to the moon with the Soviet Union. President Kennedy issued the challenge in 1961 and the race was on. When NASA finally developed the rocketry to propel Americans to the moon, it then fell on planners to decide who should plant the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface. The astronaut corps comprised mostly military officers but NASA did not want to give the Soviets an excuse to accuse Americans of trying to "conquer" the moon.
So it chose a civilian test pilot, Armstrong, to lead the Apollo 11 mission.
NOVA takes an intimate look at this man, interviewing members of his family and his friends. It seeks to give us a look at a serious American icon whose legend only grew in the decades since that mission, which had the world holding its breath.
The world loves to salute its heroes. Neil Armstrong was the real thing.
NOVA will tell us more about this legendary American.