Today, exactly three weeks after his death, the cremated remains of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, were laid to rest somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean by his family and the crewmen of the USS Philippine Sea. Given Mr. Armstrong’s dislike of ostentation and his habit of keeping a low profile for the forty-three years since Apollo 11 returned from space, it was not to be expected that he would choose burial at Arlington National Cemetery, though his service alone as a Navy pilot in the Korean War qualified him for this. But one wondered if he might select a resting place in some obscure burial ground in the wide open spaces of his native west-central Ohio. However, that was not his choice.
When Charles Lindbergh, the approximate equivalent of Mr. Armstrong in an earlier time, died in 1974, left instructions that he was to be buried in a small churchyard a few miles south of Hana, on the eastern coast of Maui in Hawaii. About five years ago, when I was in Hana on vacation, I visited the Lone Eagle’s grave. Had I been anywhere else in Maui, I think it unlikely I would have made the trip – Hana is a town that can only be reached by air or by the somewhat notorious “Hana Highway.” Lindbergh preferred it that way, no doubt.
But even so, it’s still possible to visit Charles Lindbergh’s last resting place. From now on, Neil Armstrong’s presence is in history and memory. One can say he is everywhere, but in no particular place.
On Thursday, 1500 people gathered in Washington’s National Cathedral for America’s formal farewell to Mr. Armstrong. Among those in the audience were his Apollo 11 cohorts Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, along with former Senator John Glenn and others who once thrilled the nation and the world as they voyaged in space. Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, read a eulogy. Diana Krall, the jazz singer, performed the Bart Howard composition “Fly Me To The Moon.” It fit the occasion not just for the obvious reason, but also because Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra made the song famous shortly before Mr. Armstrong took the Gemini 8 mission into orbit in 1966.
The Navy choir sang “Eternal Father, Strong To Save” at the service, and the spiritual element which is never far away from the thinking of many astronauts when contemplating their achivements was certainly present. In his eulogy, Eugene Cernan said:
‘He embodied all that is good and all that is great about America. Neil, wherever you are, you again have shown us a way to the stars[…] As you soar through the heavens where even eagles dare not go, you can now truly put out your hand and touch the face of God.”
With that echo of President Reagan’s parting words to the brave astronauts of Challenger in 1986, the nation said farewell to the man who had spearheaded America’s mightiest scientific achievement – an achievement which was also the highpoint of highpoints in the presidency of Richard Nixon.