CINCINNATI — Neil Armstrong was a soft-spoken engineer who became a global hero when as a steely-nerved pilot he made “one giant leap for mankind” with a small step onto the moon. The modest man, who had people on Earth entranced and awed from almost a quarter-million miles away, but credited others for the feat, died Saturday. He was 82.
Armstrong died after complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures, his family said in a statement. Armstrong had a bypass operation this month, according to NASA. His family didn’t say where he died; he had lived in suburban Cincinnati.
Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon July 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century’s scientific expeditions. His first words after becoming the first person to set foot on the surface are etched in history books and the memories of those who heard them in a live broadcast.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said.
(Armstrong insisted later that he had said “a” before man, but said he, too, couldn’t hear it in the version that went out to the world.)
In those first few moments on the moon, during the climax of a heated space race with the Soviet Union, Armstrong stopped in what he called “a tender moment” and left a patch to commemorate NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in action, Armstrong told an Australian television interviewer this year.
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent nearly three hours walking on the lunar surface, collecting samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs.
“The sights were simply magnificent, beyond any visual experience that I had ever been exposed to,” Armstrong once said.
The moonwalk marked America’s victory in the Cold War space race that began Oct. 4, 1957, with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, a 184-pound satellite that sent shock waves around the world.
Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA’s forerunner and an astronaut, Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program.
“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in February 2000 in one of his rare public appearances.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that Armstrong was among the greatest of American heroes.
“When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable — that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible,” Obama said.
Obama’s Republican opponent Mitt Romney echoed those sentiments, calling Armstrong an American hero whose passion for space, science and discovery will inspire him for the rest of his life.
“The moon will miss its first son of Earth,” Romney said.
Armstrong’s modesty and self-effacing manner never faded.
When he appeared in Dayton in 2003 to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight, he bounded onto a stage before 10,000 people packed into a baseball stadium. But he spoke for only a few seconds, did not mention the moon and quickly ducked out of the spotlight.
He later joined former astronaut and Sen. John Glenn to lay wreaths on the graves of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Glenn introduced Armstrong and noted it was 34 years to the day that Armstrong had walked on the moon.
“Thank you, John. Thirty-four years?” Armstrong quipped, as if he hadn’t given it a thought.
Armstrong’s moonwalk capped a series of accomplishments that included piloting the X-15 rocket plane and making the first space docking during the Gemini 8 mission, which included a successful emergency splashdown.
In the years afterward, Armstrong retreated to the quiet of the classroom and his southwest Ohio farm.
In the Australian interview, Armstrong acknowledged that “now and then I miss the excitement about being in the cockpit of an airplane and doing new things.”
The 1969 landing met an audacious deadline that President Kennedy had set in May 1961, shortly after Alan Shepard became the first American in space with a 15-minute suborbital flight. (Soviet cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin had orbited the Earth and beaten the United States into space the previous month.)
“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” Kennedy had said.
The end-of-the-decade goal was met with more than five months to spare.
The third astronaut on the mission, Michael Collins, circled the moon in the mother ship, Columbia, 60 miles overhead while Armstrong and Aldrin went to the moon’s surface.
Collins told NASA on Saturday that he will miss Armstrong terribly, spokesman Bob Jacobs tweeted.
In all, 12 American astronauts walked on the moon between 1969 and the last moon mission in 1972.
Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, on a farm near Wapakoneta in western Ohio. He took his first airplane ride at age 6 and developed a fascination with aviation that prompted him to build model airplanes and conduct experiments in a homemade wind tunnel.
As a boy, he worked at a pharmacy and took flying lessons. He was licensed to fly at 16, before he got his driver’s license.
Armstrong enrolled in Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering but was called to duty with the U.S. Navy in 1949 and flew 78 combat missions in Korea.
After the war, Armstrong finished his degree from Purdue and later earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. He became a test pilot with what evolved into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, flying more than 200 kinds of aircraft from gliders to jets.
Armstrong was accepted into NASA’s second astronaut class in 1962 — the first, including Glenn, was chosen in 1959 — and commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. After the first space docking, he brought the capsule back in an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean when a wildly firing thruster kicked it out of orbit.
Armstrong was backup commander for the historic Apollo 8 mission at Christmastime in 1968. In that flight, Commander Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders circled the moon 10 times, paving the way for the lunar landing seven months later.
From 1982 to 1992, Armstrong was chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc., a company based in Charlottesville, Va., that supplies computer information management systems for business aircraft.
He then became chairman of AIL Systems Inc., an electronic-systems company in Deer Park, N.Y.
Armstrong married Carol Knight in 1999, and the couple lived in Indian Hill, a Cincinnati suburb. He had two adult sons from a previous marriage.
An estimated 600 million people — a fifth of the world’s population — watched and listened to the landing, the largest audience for any single event in history.