On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history. The moon landing made Armstrong famous, but the Navy pilot from Ohio was never comfortable with the spotlight. Right up until his death in 2012, Armstrong deflected praise for his role in the historic Apollo 11 mission, echoing his famous words as he first stepped onto the lunar surface: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Early Life and Korean War

Neil Armstrong always wanted to fly. He was born on August 5, 1930 near Wapakoneta, Ohio, less than 60 miles from the Wright brothers’ workshop in Dayton. In 1936, when he was six years old, young Neil rode in his first airplane, a “Tin Goose” Ford tri-motor passenger plane. He was hooked. At 16, Armstrong earned his student pilot’s license, even before he had a driver’s license.

In 1947, Armstrong attended Purdue University on a Naval scholarship, studying aeronautical engineering. As part of his scholarship, the Navy trained Armstrong as a fighter pilot in Florida. His college studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War, where Armstrong flew 78 combat missions. His aircraft, the F-9F Panther jet, was one of the first jet fighters to launch from a carrier. 

NASA Test Pilot

After finishing college, Armstrong went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. The mild-mannered kid from Ohio made his name as one of the most daring and skilled test pilots at NASA’s Flight Research Center (now the Armstrong Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

During seven years as a test pilot, Armstrong flew 200 different aircraft that pushed the limits of speed and altitude, including the legendary X-15. High over the California desert, Armstrong reached speeds of more than 4,000 mph and took the needle-nosed X-15 to the edge of space. Armstrong’s steady hand as a test pilot was instrumental to the success of NASA’s first Mercury astronauts. Soon he’d become one of them.

The Gemini Program

1962 was a year of joy and heartache for the Armstrong family. Neil was chosen for NASA’s astronaut training program in Houston, but he and his wife Janet also lost their second child, a two-year-old daughter named Karen, to an inoperable brain tumor.

Armstrong buried himself in his work preparing for the Gemini program, NASA’s next step toward reaching the moon. In 1966, Armstrong was chosen as command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission, the first time that NASA astronauts would attempt to connect two spacecraft in orbit, a difficult and dangerous maneuver known as “rendezvous and docking.”

In March, 1966, Armstrong and his copilot David Scott rocketed into orbit and successfully docked with the target spacecraft Agena, but things quickly went awry. A thruster on the Gemini 8 capsule malfunctioned and the two interlocked spacecraft began to veer off course. To avoid burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere, Armstrong detached from the Agena, but the release of the Agena’s weight sent the Gemini capsule into an uncontrolled spin.

The G-forces created by the end-over-end spin were crushing and both astronauts were on the verge of losing consciousness when Armstrong activated a set of secondary thrusters and wrestled the Gemini capsule back under control. There’s no doubt that Armstrong’s test pilot nerves saved both astronauts’ lives.

The Moon Landing

Armstrong was selected for the Apollo program, the final push to the moon, but he almost never made it back to space. On May 6, 1968, Armstrong was in Houston conducting his 22nd test flight of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, an ungainly practice aircraft. Without warning, the LLRV veered out of control. Armstrong ejected and parachuted to safety, seconds before the LLRV crashed in a fiery explosion.

Undaunted, Armstrong continued his training and was chosen by NASA as the spacecraft commander for Apollo 11, the mission to land the first men on the moon. His crewmates were Michael Collins, pilot of the command module that orbited the moon, and Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot. Aldrin lobbied hard to be the first to step on the lunar surface, but the NASA brass chose Armstrong for his calm confidence and total lack of ego.

Those trademark nerves were on display on July 20, 1969 as Armstrong piloted the Lunar Module toward the surface of the moon. With fuel running dangerously low, Armstrong switched to manual control to steer the fragile spacecraft away from a field of “Volkswagen”-sized boulders and land the astronauts safely in the silty lunar soil.

As millions watched the live broadcast on their televisions, the shy pilot from Ohio descended the ladder of the Lunar Module and uttered his now-famous words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Because of the static-filled connection, the “a” was inaudible, but Armstrong insisted that he said it.

Life After the Moon Landing

Overnight, Armstrong became the most famous man alive. Four million spectators lined the streets of New York City to welcome home Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts in a ticker-tape parade. But Armstrong wasn’t in it for the fame and accolades. He quietly went back to a desk job at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., then earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California in 1970.

Armstrong retired from NASA in 1971 and took a job as an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati in his home state of Ohio. In 1986, he joined the Rogers Commission investigating the tragic Challenger shuttle explosion. Later, Armstrong served on a number of corporate boards in the aerospace industry and testified before Congress about the importance of maintaining a manned space program.  

In 2005, Armstrong consented to a rare television interview on 60 Minutes, in which he was asked directly if he was uncomfortable with the fame of being the first man on the moon. “No, I just don’t deserve it,” replied Armstrong, smiling. “Circumstance put me into that particular role. That wasn’t planned by anyone.”

In 2012, Armstrong went in for heart bypass surgery and the 82-year-old astronaut died of complications.

HISTORY Vault: The Apollo 11 Moon Landing

This documentary unearths lost tapes of the Apollo 11 astronauts, and explores the dangers and challenges of the mission to the moon.