Above the stars now

Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the surface of the moon, eulogised by family, NASA and admirers.

The life and work of one of the most famous men in the world was celebrated in Washington DC on Thursday. 

Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the surface of the moon, died last month.

At the city’s National Cathedral friends, family and many who never knew him personally but felt as if they did, gathered to remember Armstrong’s remarkable achievements and his humble nature.

“Everyone in this line has a NASA invitation or a ticket?”

That was an official helping to manage the long queue that had formed early to hear Armstrong eulogised by the likes of Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator.

“Neil will always be remembered for taking human kind’s first small step on a world beyond our own but it was the courage grace and humility he displayed throughout this life that lifted him above the stars.”

Brilliant, humble, respectful

Armstrong was a navy pilot during the Korean War, a test pilot, an astronaut, a professor and a businessman. The congregation heard how he built model plans at home in Ohio and first got a taste for flying aged six.

The last man to walk on the Moon Eugene Cernan recounted Armstrong’s reaction to landing on the Moon with just seconds of fuel left.

“When the gauge says empty we all know there’s a gallon or two left in the tank!”

That brought much laughter from within a congregation that was sitting alongside the National Cathedral’s so called, “Space Window” in the south Chancel. The frame depicts the Apollo Moon shots and contains a sliver of three billion year old Moon rock within the stained glass.

Fly Me To The Moon

No memorial for the first man to walk on the moon would be complete without a special song and the Canadian jazz pianist Diana Krall provided it – words made famous by Frank Sinatra – “Fly Me The Moon and let me play among the stars.”

Formal prayers were led by Michael Collins, Armstrong’s colleague on Apollo 11 – the Command Module pilot who didn’t go to the Moon.

Afterwards, in bright sunshine, people were pleased just to have been present at the event.

“He handled success amazingly well but he handled everything else that comes with success in the rest of his life I think probably even better,” one attendant said.

“A tribute to a pioneer someone who did a first there are not many firsts going on in the world today so it was really great to come and pay tribute to someone who did something so awesome,” another said. 

Neil Armstrong’s life inspired millions of around the world but he always backed away from the limelight. This memorial, however, was exclusively about Neil Armstrong .. as those friends, family and many, many complete strangers said goodbye to the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon.

Al Jazeera exclusive

Fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins quietly slipped away when the service finished, much to the disappointment of the assembled press.

David Scott, the Commander of Apollo 15, however, did stick around to give some interviews.

I asked him if he had any Neil Armstrong stories that the world had not heard before?

What follows is a story I don’t think has ever come out before, which I had to drop from my TV report, because of time issues.

Scott said that when he and Armstrong flew in space together aboard Gemini 8 in 1966 the mission was saved from an aborted take-off by a quick thinking Armstrong.

Somehow a vulcanising agent (glue) had been spilled on Scott’s harness preventing it from locking correctly.

With the hatch about to be sealed and the countdown underway if the harness couldn’t be secured the mission would have to be postponed.

Smiling broadly, Armstrong called out to a back-up pilot Pete Conrad outside on the gantry, “Hey Pete get over here and fix it.”

Pete, who’d been scheduled to fly the mission but who got switched out by NASA took a small instrument and picked away at the glue ’til it was all gone.

Then Scott’s harness latched successfully … the clock wasn’t stopped … and away they went.

“That happened because Neil Armstrong was a team player, he always worked on behalf of the team,” Scott said.