Every sixth grade class at the elementary school I attended had a fairly daunting assignment about midway through the year: choose a famous historical figure, research their life, write a paper about them, and give a presentation to the class dressed as that person.
My sister was two grades ahead of me and ended up choosing Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space. This may well have contributed to my own decision two years later to choose one of the famous people from the country’s space program. And what better choice than Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon?
I have Armstrong—and the teacher who assigned the topic, of course—to thank for sparking a long-running interest in science. Among the books and articles I checked out for the project was a giant volume on the history of the space program from its inception to the Apollo 11 mission. For some reason, I didn’t just look at the final chapters. Maybe I thought the topic was complex enough that I thought it would be good to know what led up to the Moon landing. Either way, I wound up reading the entire book, growing more and more fascinated with the triumphs and tragedies of NASA.
I remember that I got a good grade, but I don’t recall too much about the presentation itself. I think I horribly mispronounced the word “civilian” when mentioning Armstrong’s post-military flying career. And though my mother was excellent at the sewing machine, she certainly didn’t have the time to put together a spacesuit. I talked about the famous astronaut while wearing a suit and tie instead.
In a way, this outfit may have been a better reflection of the man. Armstrong was an intensely private person after his NASA career, never one to want a permanent place in the limelight. You got the sense that Armstrong knew he was the tip of a pyramid, that his accomplishment was shared by countless engineers and others who made the extraordinary flight possible.
Armstrong’s inspiration didn’t exactly lead to a sustained aspiration to pursue a career in spaceflight, even if I was the only one in the class that really liked the G-force rides at the amusement park. I did well in science but had a more difficult time with it in college, ultimately transitioning my studies to history and writing. But I still find myself looking at the seemingly dime-sized Moon in the night sky and pausing to think about how incredible it is that we were able to go there.
When Armstrong passed away on Aug. 25, his family made a simple request. “Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty,” they said, “and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the Moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
People will remember Armstrong’s first words on the Moon as long as the satellite rises in the sky. I think many of us will remember those of his family as well.