By Lisa Cornwell and Seth Borenstein
---- — CINCINNATI (AP) — Neil Armstrong was a soft-spoken engineer who became a global hero when as a steely-nerved pilot he made “one giant leap for mankind” with a small step onto the moon. The modest man, who had people on Earth entranced and awed from almost a quarter-million miles away, but credited others for the feat, died yesterday. He was 82.
Armstrong died following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures, his family said in a statement. Armstrong had had a bypass operation this month, according to NASA. His family didn’t say where he died; he had lived in suburban Cincinnati.
Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon July 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century’s scientific expeditions. His first words after becoming the first person to set foot on the surface are etched in history books and the memories of those who heard them in a live broadcast.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said. (Armstrong insisted later that he had said “a’’ before man, but said he, too, couldn’t hear it in the version that went to the world.)
In those first few moments on the moon, during the climax of a heated space race with the Soviet Union, Armstrong stopped in what he called “a tender moment” and left a patch to commemorate NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in action.
“It was special and memorable but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do,” Armstrong told an Australian television interviewer this year.
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent nearly three hours walking on the lunar surface, collecting samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs.
“The sights were simply magnificent, beyond any visual experience that I had ever been exposed to,” Armstrong once said.
The moonwalk marked America’s victory in the Cold War space race that began Oct. 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, a 184-pound satellite that sent shock waves around the world.
Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA’s forerunner and an astronaut, Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program.
“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in 2000 in one of his rare public appearances. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
Fellow Ohioan and astronaut John Glenn, one of Armstrong’s closest friends, recalled how Armstrong was down to the last 15 seconds to 35 seconds of fuel when he finally brought the Eagle down on the Sea of Tranquility.
“That showed a dedication to what he was doing that was admirable,” Glenn said.
A man who kept away from cameras, Armstrong went public in 2010 with his concerns about President Barack Obama’s space policy that shifted attention away from a return to the moon and emphasized private companies developing spaceships. He testified before Congress, and in an email to The Associated Press, Armstrong said he had “substantial reservations,” and along with more than two dozen Apollo-era veterans, he signed a letter calling the plan a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”
Armstrong was among the greatest of American heroes, Obama said in a statement.
“When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable — that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible,” Obama said.
Obama’s Republican opponent Mitt Romney echoed those sentiments, calling Armstrong an American hero whose passion for space, science and discovery will inspire him for the rest of his life.
“With courage unmeasured and unbounded love for his country, he walked where man had never walked before. The moon will miss its first son of earth,” Romney said.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recalled Armstrong’s grace and humility.
“As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own,” Bolden said in a statement.
Armstrong’s moonwalk capped a series of accomplishments that included piloting the X-15 rocket plane and making the first space docking during the Gemini 8 mission, which included a successful emergency splashdown.
In all, 12 American astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 to the last moon mission in 1972.
Armstrong was accepted into NASA’s second astronaut class in 1962 — the first, including Glenn, was chosen in 1959 — and commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. After the first space docking, he brought the capsule back in an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean when a wildly firing thruster kicked it out of orbit.
Armstrong was backup commander for the historic Apollo 8 mission at Christmastime in 1968. In that flight, Commander Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders circled the moon 10 times, paving the way for the lunar landing seven months later.
Aldrin said he and Armstrong were not prone to free exchanges of sentiment.
“But there was that moment on the moon, a brief moment, in which we sort of looked at each other and slapped each other on the shoulder ... and said, ‘We made it. Good show,’ or something like that,” Aldrin said.
An estimated 600 million people — a fifth of the world’s population — watched and listened to the landing, the largest audience for any single event in history.
Afterward, people walked out of their homes and gazed at the moon, in awe of what they had just seen. Others peeked through telescopes in hopes of spotting the astronauts.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were given ticker tape parades in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and later made a 22-nation world tour. In 1970, Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA but left the following year to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
He remained there until 1979 and during that time bought a 310-acre farm near Lebanon, where he raised cattle and corn. He stayed out of public view, accepting few requests for interviews or speeches.
“He didn’t give interviews, but he wasn’t a strange person or hard to talk to,” said Ron Huston, a colleague at the University of Cincinnati. “He just didn’t like being a novelty.”
Those who knew him said he enjoyed golfing with friends, was active in the local YMCA and frequently ate lunch at the same restaurant in Lebanon.
Armstrong’s is the second death in a month of one of NASA’s most visible, history-making astronauts. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died of pancreatic cancer on July 23 at age 61.