For many of those old enough to remember the first moon landing of Apollo 11, the death of astronaut Neil Alden Armstrong at age 72 surely set off wistful recollections of what was. The first man to walk on the moon was associated with a time when the country could unite over one endeavor, even while deeply divided about others. It was a period of daring exploration and unchallenged American technological dominance. A nation admired Mr. Armstrong for handling his fame and status as the first man who stepped on the moon with humility and grace.
How different from today.
While the recent landing of an unmanned exploratory craft on the surface of Mars was a great technological achievement, it simply cannot capture the public's fascination in the way that human space exploration did. As the command pilot of Gemini 8 in March 1966, the first spacecraft to dock with another in orbit, Mr. Armstrong remained cool under stress when a stuck thruster rocket sent his capsule spinning one revolution per second, manually regaining control and returning his crew safely to Earth.
Likewise, on July 20, 1969, Mr. Armstrong took control of the Lunar Module and navigated it past boulders to a safe landing area, with about a half-minute of fuel left.
These missions and men like Mr. Armstrong transfixed a nation. Though divided over the Vietnam War and still struggling with civil rights, the country largely supported this mission to the moon to prove again that America and, yes, its government, were capable of great things.
At a time when much of society worships celebrity status, seemingly regardless of how that notoriety is achieved, it is striking to remember how a man who truly earned his place atop the world stage handled it.
The native of Wapakoneta returned to Ohio and taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, lectured about space exploration, and served his nation when called upon, including on the commission that investigated the causes of the 1986 Challenger disaster. Rather than craving the limelight and leveraging it for greater fortune, he eschewed it.
The good old days were, of course, not all good, but Mr. Armstrong's passing reminds us that in some ways, certainly, they were better.