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NASA Honors Neil Armstrong With Exploration Award
Neil Armstrong stands next to his Ambassador of Exploration Award. Image above: Neil Armstrong stands next to the Ambassador of Exploration Award at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

"Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." The words of Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander and the first human to set foot on the moon, told a tense and waiting Earth that humans had finally reached the lunar surface.

Armstrong suits up for Apollo 11 launch Image left: Armstrong suits up for the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969. Photo credit: NASA. Click for larger image

It was July 20, 1969. With fuel running low and computers sounding alarms, Armstrong had taken manual control of the lunar module Eagle and piloted it past a boulder-strewn field to a safe landing. Now he and his crewmate Buzz Aldrin were sitting on the moon, with Mike Collins orbiting above in the command module.

Armstrong's words from the Sea of Tranquillity epitomized the fulfillment of the efforts of a generation of scientists and researchers and the hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary men and women. Tens of millions watched Armstrong take the "small step," he so aptly called a "giant leap for mankind."
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For this and everything else he did for America's space program, Armstrong received NASA's Ambassador of Exploration Award on April 18, in the Reakirt Auditorium at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

Former Sen. John Glenn, who became the first American in orbit as a Mercury astronaut and later flew on the shuttle, spoke at the ceremony. Glenn said that, given the opportunities he'd had, he didn't envy many people. "But for Neil," he said, "I make a big exception."
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Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 mission commander, at the modular equipment storage assembly of the Lunar Module Image above: Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong was photographed by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin at the modular equipment storage assembly of the Lunar Module "Eagle" on the historic first extravehicular activity on the lunar surface. This is one of only a few photos that show Armstrong on the surface. Image credit: NASA.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin spoke next, calling Armstrong a "test pilot's test pilot" as he outlined Armstrong's illustrious career.

Armstrong called the award "very impressive" and went on to share what he called "a thin slice of natural history" with the audience. Using a moon rock he dubbed "Bok" as the central character, Armstrong outlined the geologic development of the moon through the eons. He wrapped up his tale with a quip: "I was the strange creature that kidnapped Bok." He referred to the lunar sample that was part of the award as "a chip off the old Bok."

Neil Armstrong Left image: Armstrong shares "a thin slice of natural history" with the audience. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Right image: From left, Armstrong, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, and former Sen. John Glenn with the award. Photo credit: NASA TV.

NASA is presenting the award to the 38 astronauts and key individuals who participated in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs for realizing America’s vision of space exploration from 1961 to 1972.

Armstrong was destined for a career exploring the heavens. Born Aug. 5, 1930, in Wapokoneta, Ohio, he dreamed of flying even as a boy. In fact, he got his pilot's license on his 16th birthday -- before he got his drivers license.

He got his aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue University, and flew 78 combat missions as a naval aviator during the Korean War. Armstrong began his career in aviation research as a pilot with NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Early on he transferred from the research facility at the Lewis Laboratory in Cleveland to the NACA High Speed Flight Station at Edwards AFB, Calif. There, he was a project pilot on many pioneering high speed aircraft, including the 4,000 mph X-15.

His career at NASA is filled with "firsts." After joining the astronaut corps in 1962, he became the first civilian to fly a U.S. spacecraft, Gemini VIII, in 1966. On that mission, Armstrong and fellow astronaut David R. Scott performed the first successful docking of two vehicles in space. When a stuck thruster put their capsule into a dangerous spin, Armstrong used the re-entry rockets to regain control.

Portrait of Neil Armstrong standing next to the X-15 after a research flight. The X-15 was a rocket-powered aircraft 50 feet long with a wingspan of 22 feet. Image right: Neil Armstrong stands next to the X-15 after a research flight. Image credit: NASA.

Recounting his thoughts on the early years of the space program in a LIFE Magazine interview written after the historic lunar mission, Armstrong said, "A whole array of approaches to space was in the works. We were doing some exciting, way-out things in which we were more than just pilots. We were engineers and developers using airplanes merely as tools, the way an astronomer uses a telescope as a tool."

And of course, there is the ultimate "first." When he planted that boot in the gray lunar dust, he became forever the "First Man," as the title of the 2005 biography by former NASA historian James Hansen puts it. For generations to come, his name will symbolize not only the great technical achievement of Apollo, but humankind's need to explore new worlds.

"I just see it as beginning," he said at a post-Apollo 11 news conference. "Not just this flight, but in this program which has really been a very short piece of human history -- an instant in history -- the entire program. It's a beginning of a new age."

After the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth, Armstrong and his fellow astronauts toured the U.S. and the world. Millions greeted them as heroes. Seventeen countries decorated Armstrong. He received many special honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the Harmon International Aviation Trophy, the Royal Geographic Society’s Gold Medal and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale’s Gold Space Medal.

New York City welcomes the Apollo 11 crew during ticker tape down Broadway and Park Avenue. Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot.Image left: New York City welcomed the Apollo 11 crew in a ticker tape down Broadway. Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot. Image credit: NASA.

Armstrong later served as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA Headquarters, and was a professor at the University of Cincinnati from 1971 to 1979. He was a founding member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the Royal Aeronautical Society, and an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the International Astronautical Federation. Additionally, Armstrong served as a member of the National Commission on Space in 1985 and 1986, and was vice chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.

He's flown over 200 different models of aircraft, including jets, rockets, helicopters and gliders, and still advises NASA as part of the NASA Advisory Council. In 2004 he offered his support for the Vision for Space Exploration, saying the plan has "substantial merit and promise." Noting that the public may be discouraged by the high risks involved, Armstrong said, "to limit the progress in the name of eliminating risk is no virtue."

Armstrong's award will be displayed at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

For his astronaut biography information, visit: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/armstrong-na.html.