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Astronaut Neil Armstrong Dies


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan, in for Guy Raz.


NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

SULLIVAN: Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. He died today at the age of 82 after complications from a heart procedure. He was the first of just 12 Americans to step on the moon from 1969 to 1972.


ARMSTRONG: It has a stark beauty all its own. It's like much of the high desert of the United States. It's different, but it's very pretty out here.

SULLIVAN: Neil Armstrong was known as a private man and gave very few interviews. But science journalist Andrew Chaikin convinced Armstrong in 1988 to speak to him for his book "A Man on the Moon: Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts." Neil Armstrong and Andrew Chaikin grew to be friends.

And Andrew Chaikin joins us now from his home in Vermont. Andrew, that line, one small step, you know, that line said a lot about Neil Armstrong, didn't it?

ANDREW CHAIKIN: Well, what really, to me, said a lot about Neil was the conversation we had about that quote. And I promised him I was not going to ask him about it in our interview because everybody asks him about it, and I already knew the story of how he came up with that quote on the moon just a couple of hours after they landed. But what he said to me was the emotional moment was the landing. That was human contact with the moon. But the rest of the world was so focused on that first footstep that he really had no choice, and he did beautifully, as we all know. He came up with a wonderful quote.

SULLIVAN: As we mentioned, he was a notoriously private man, but you came to know him as a friend. How was Neil Armstrong, the public figure, different from the Neil Armstrong, say, at dinner with his family?

CHAIKIN: Well, I think the thing that people don't realize is, you know, he was so shy. He was really uncomfortable with the attention. And it's ironic that someone who is that way was thrust into one of the most absolutely white hot glares of publicity and celebrity that any human has had to endure. Having said that, when you got him away from that and he felt comfortable, he was warm, he was engaging, he had a really dry, delightful sense of humor, could tell great stories and could laugh. And, you know, he really was a delight.

And the more I got to know him, the more I kind of cherished that about him. But at the same time, I always had this feeling of tremendous admiration for Neil as a pioneer, as an explorer, as really the essence of the test pilot who did what he did, not for his own gratification, but for advancing the state of human knowledge and achievement.

SULLIVAN: Did Armstrong have thoughts on the direction of the U.S. space program later in life?

CHAIKIN: Yes. We talked about that some. He was very distressed at the way that NASA's future had become what he called the equivalent of a badminton shuttlecock getting hit back and forth between Congress and the White House and so on. But I think he was most anxious to see us get back in the exploration game, to get back to the moon and go even farther. But I never doubted his motivation or his passion or his belief that space exploration is part of the destiny of humankind.

SULLIVAN: Do you have any favorite memories of him, anything that jumps out at you when you think of Neil Armstrong?

CHAIKIN: Actually, one of the moments that I think about most is about an hour and a half into the moon walk, Buzz Aldrin had a different task to work on than Neil did, and Neil actually had a minute to be off on his own and explore the area. And he took off running to a crater that was about 200 feet behind the Lunar Lander. It only took him about a minute to run back there and snap some pictures and then another minute to run back, you know? And I often picture him loping in that one-sixth lunar gravity, literally venturing where no human had gone before. And, you know, it's a great little moment of human exploration that I always associate with him.

SULLIVAN: That's journalist Andrew Chaikin speaking about Neil Armstrong who died today at the age of 82. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us.

CHAIKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.