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Neil Armstrong, who died on Saturday, August 25, at 82 years old, was one of those rare, genuine heroes whose legend grew larger with passing years not because he nurtured the myths that attached to him as the first human to walk on the moon, but because he quietly, resolutely refused to play the role of the publicly lauded Great American.
And yet, as private as he was, much of Armstrong’s career with NASA was chronicled, in depth, by LIFE magazine and other media. They were there, covering Armstrong’s role as one of the agency’s astronauts — an astronaut who would ultimately become far more famous than most by virtue of his role on the Apollo 11 flight, but who was, for the entirety of that career, as disciplined a team player as the space program ever produced.
Evoking Armstrong’s personal and professional ethos to perfection, LIFE in 1969 wrote of him: “He grew up in Middle America during the Depression, steered by a set of stern and stubborn values: work hard, smile, save your money, count your blessings (things could be worse) and pray a lot (things could be better). Also: learning is the salvation of the human race, and sloth by far its greatest peril.”
Neil Armstrong worked hard. He inspired others not by any self-consciously grand gestures, but by his dedication to excellence and his tenacious search for ways to further human knowledge and human experience; by firing imaginations around the globe with his humility (“One small step for a man …”); and by his quiet, understated, unquestionable courage.