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Margaret Lazarus Dean Headshot

Neil Armstrong's Second Act

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I wasn't going to write anything about the death of Neil Armstrong until this morning, when I heard a commentator on the radio say that the former astronaut had the reputation of being "private, almost to a fault." Of course, I know what he meant -- Neil Armstrong was never comfortable with the attention that his historic achievements brought with them, and at a certain point he stopped granting interviews or making public appearances almost entirely. The words "painfully shy" have appeared in obituaries for Neil Armstrong since his death on Saturday, but his fellow astronauts all agree that he wasn't shy, that he was comfortable speaking his mind and could deploy a sly sense of humor. But he never liked being the center of attention and never enjoyed the fame that came with being the first human on the moon.

Some people think Neil Armstrong's choice to stop giving interviews and making appearances showed him to be standoffish, rude, or even ungrateful. To me, it shows just the opposite -- he had the humility to see the first moon landing as an accomplishment of many people, not just one man. His view of the meaning of Apollo was perhaps best summed up in what he chose to say at the moment he placed his first boot on the surface of the moon. His words reflect the profundity of the achievement while also deliberately shifting the focus from his own part in it to what the moment meant for all mankind.

After the crew of Apollo 11 returned from the moon, they embarked on a world tour during which they visited 28 cities in just over a month. It was an experience that Michael Collins found enjoyable, Buzz Aldrin found in turns exhilarating and exhausting, and Neil Armstrong found excruciating. As the years went on, Neil Armstrong tried to remove himself more and more from the limelight, until he finally stopped doing interviews and appearances altogether except on the rarest of occasions. People who knew Neil Armstrong understood his decision and appreciated the time and energy he had already given to the public, but not everyone was so gracious. I once spent a day with Buzz Aldrin at a book festival around the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, and more than one of the fans who came out to meet him took a moment to complain about the fact that Neil Armstrong no longer did similar events. One woman vented: "I helped pay for your trip to the moon! And he can't even sign a piece of paper for me?"

Buzz Aldrin, unflappably polite, said he was sorry she was having trouble completing her collection and thanked her for coming. But I wished I could get her alone to challenge her logic. Yes, American taxpayers paid for the trip to the moon that Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins enjoyed. But the three astronauts also risked their lives in doing so, and this was after they had already served their country by flying combat missions in Korea and later flying experimental aircraft as test pilots. I wanted to ask her: Exactly how many years of his life do you think Neil Armstrong owes us? Exactly how many autographs should he have to give? A thousand? Ten thousand? How many times should he have to answer the question, "What did it feel like to walk on the moon?" In the day I spent with Buzz Aldrin, I saw him give hundreds of autographs and answer that question hundreds of times, but Buzz Aldrin is an extrovert, a person who clearly enjoys the company of new people and thrives on sharing his stories with others. By all accounts, Neil Armstrong was a textbook introvert, a person who found encounters with new people draining rather than energizing. (Michael Collins seems to be somewhere in the middle.) Neil Armstrong's tendency toward introversion might have been one of the factors that made him the perfect choice to be the commander of Apollo 11, and as part of that duty he made the sacrifice of setting aside his introversion to share his experiences publicly for years after the journey. How much more did he owe us?

I saw a Tweet yesterday from a journalist who tells the story of driving to Neil Armstrong's home uninvited on the twentieth anniversary of the moon landing to find the former astronaut resealing his driveway. He reports that Armstrong "said no thanks to interview."

Many people responded on Twitter that this anecdote was awesome, but I have to admit that it makes me sad. I like to think of Neil Armstrong, nearing 60, doing some outdoor home improvement on the twentieth anniversary of his moonwalk -- that seems just right for him. And it makes me cringe to imagine him being forced to interrupt his meditative work to have to answer, for the millionth time, a request from a person wanting something from The First Man on the Moon. At a certain point in his life, a man should be able to reseal his driveway in peace, and if anyone had earned that right, it was Neil Armstrong.

I always told myself that if I ever had the chance to meet Neil Armstrong I wouldn't request an autograph or ask him any questions about his time in space -- I would just thank him for his service to our country. Now I'll never have the chance. Neil Armstrong was not only the first man on the moon, he was also a man who showed us how to live out a dignified second act in a life marked by a startlingly hard-to-beat first. For the record, I think his crewmates have done so as well, and their choices reflect their personalities as well as Armstrong's did his.

Neil Armstrong turned down many offers of more money and more fame to teach aeronautical engineering. I like to think his students might have absorbed not only his first-hand knowledge of his subject, but also his unspoken lessons about how to live a life. Godspeed Neil Armstrong, and may we remember your dignity, humility, and hard work as well as your daring and beautiful First.