Image: Moon footprint
AP
In this photo from July 20, 1969, a footprint left by one of the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission shows in the soft, powder surface of the moon.
By
updated 8/25/2012 10:27:45 PM ET 2012-08-26T02:27:45

When man first harnessed fire, no one recorded it. When the Wright Brothers showed man could fly, only a handful of people witnessed it. But when Neil Armstrong took that first small step on the moon in July 1969, an entire globe watched in grainy black-and-white from a quarter million miles away

We saw it. We were part of it. He took that "giant leap for mankind" for us.

Although more than half of the world's population wasn't alive then, it was an event that changed and expanded the globe.

"It's a human achievement that will be remembered forever," said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of space policy at George Washington University.

Those first steps were beamed to nearly every country around the world, thanks to a recently launched satellite. It was truly the first global mass media event, Logsdon said. An estimated 600 million people — one out of every five on the planet — watched.

'Great divide' in history
When people look back hundreds of years from now, the two historical events likely to be long remembered from the 20th century are the moon landing and the first atomic bomb, said Smithsonian Institution space curator Roger Launius.

"There is no way to overestimate that significance in human history, and he is forever linked to that," Launius said of Armstrong, who died Saturday at age 82.

Just as the voyage of Christopher Columbus split historic eras 500 years ago, so will Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11, said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, a specialist in 20th-century history.

"We may be living in the age of Armstrong," said Brinkley, who conducted oral histories for NASA, including sessions with Armstrong.

The late science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote that the Apollo 11 moon landing was "one of the great divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out on to the Sea of Tranquility. Now history and fiction have become inexorably intertwined."

Since that day, there's been a common phrase: "If we can send a man to the moon, why can't we ... ?" with the blank filled with a task that seems far less difficult.

Armstrong's small step was that leap in confidence telling the world "if we can do this, we can do anything," said Howard McCurdy, a professor of space and public policy at American University and author of the book "Space and the American Imagination."

"He took something that 20 years earlier was pure fantasy and turned it into reality and if we could do that for space we could do it for anything," McCurdy said Saturday.

Mentioning mankind
The Apollo 11 moon landing was the finish line in a decade-long space race started by the Soviet Union. And so the first steps on the moon coming from an American civilian had many meanings. Getting there first showed American technological superiority, but Armstrong mentioned mankind — not Americans — demonstrating that this was a moment for the people of Earth, McCurdy said.

Armstrong and Aldrin left a plaque on the moon that read:  "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

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For all mankind. And that's how the world took it.

"The success for America (is a) success for every living man" reported the Swahili-language newspaper Nguromo of Dar.

And if that wasn't enough, Armstrong and Aldrin also left a patch to commemorate NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in pursuit of space.

"It was special and memorable but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do," Armstrong told an Australian television interviewer this year.

The Cold War may have slightly muted the significance of the event at the time, but over the years the importance of the moon landing has only grown, Logsdon said.

It's permeated into culture. The moon landing is in movies, television, books, songs and it was even Michael Jackson's signature dance step. That's probably because in some ways that moon walk touched something that has been hard-wired into humanity: the need to explore. For 25,000 years, humans have been migrating and pushing into new places. Armstrong took it to new heights.

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth noted it was "the first time any human being set foot on a place other than Earth, and that's a pretty big step."

More about Neil Armstrong:

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Video: America loses a hero

Photos: Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

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  1. American hero

    Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away on Aug. 25, 2012, will be forever known as the first man to set foot on the moon. This 1969 portrait shows Armstrong in his spacesuit, standing in front of a large photograph of the lunar surface. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family portrait

    Astronaut Neil Armstrong is pictured with his wife, Janet, and his two sons, Eric and Mark, on Aug. 26, 1963. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In training

    Neil Armstrong is buckled up at a NASA training center on Sept. 1, 1963. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Flying bedstead

    Neil Armstrong strides alongside a lunar landing research vehicle, also known as a "flying bedstead," at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Aug. 1, 1964. The LLRV was used to train astronauts for landings on the moon. In 1968, Armstrong had to eject from an LLRV when the flight controls failed. It was one of the astronaut's closest calls. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Suited up

    Neil Armstrong sits in a mock space capsule, dressed in a full Navy Mark IV pressure suit (except for the helmet), during training for his Gemini space mission in the mid-1960s. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Gemini 8

    Commander Neil Armstrong (foreground) and pilot David Scott prepare to get into their Gemini 8 capsule on March 16, 1966. The mission marked the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit, but ended prematurely due to a thruster malfunction. Armstrong got the spacecraft under control and brought the capsule safely back to Earth for a Pacific splashdown. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The trio of Apollo

    Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong, the crew of Apollo 11, pose with a model of the moon in 1969. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Practice run

    Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins stand by a mock Apollo capsule during water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico. (Science Society Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rehearsal for landing

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong poses with a landing simulator at the Lunar Landing Research Facility at NASA's Langley Research Center on Feb. 12, 1969. (NASA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. At ease

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin stand in front of their Saturn 5 rocket at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 20, 1969, during preparations for their mission. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Checking out the seats

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin wear clean-room gear during a walk-through egress test in their command module on June 10, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Meet the press

    The crew members of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, get comfortable during a press conference in July 1969. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Time for study

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong reviews flight plans on July 14, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Checking the fit

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin get ready to train for extravehicular activity, under the watchful eye of chief astronaut Deke Slayton (right). (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Here's the scoop

    Neil Armstrong takes a photo of a sample that Buzz Aldrin is about to collect with a large scoop during a training session. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. On their way

    Neil Armstrong waves as he and his Apollo 11 crewmates head for the van that will take them to the Saturn 5 rocket for launch to the moon from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Fire in the sky

    The Apollo 11 mission's Saturn 5 rocket climbs toward orbit after liftoff from Launch Pad 39A at 9:32 a.m. ET on July 16, 1969. This photo was taken with a 70mm telescopic camera mounted on an Air Force EC-135N plane. Onboard were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. (Science Society Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Shadow on the moon

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong captures his own shadow on film while taking a photo of the lunar module on the moon's surface in July 1969. (Neil Armstrong / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Star-spangled moon

    A frame from a 16mm movie shows Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting up an American flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission on July 20, 1969. (Time & Life Pictures / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. One small step

    Neil Armstrong steps into history on July 20, 1969, by leaving the first human footprint on the surface of the moon. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Reflecting on history

    Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon next to the lunar module in this photo, taken by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. Aldrin's helmet visor reflects back the scene in front of him, including a small image of Armstrong taking the picture. (Neil Armstrong / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Astronaut at work

    Neil Armstrong is seen near the lunar lander and the U.S. flag in a picture taken by Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. (Buzz Aldrin / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Watching from afar

    Ten thousand spectators gathered to watch giant television screens in New York's Central Park and cheer as astronaut Neil Armstrong took humanity's first step on the moon on July 20, 1969. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Homeward bound

    The lunar module, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard, approaches the Apollo 11 command module for a rendezvous on July 21, 1969, marking the first leg of the homeward journey. A half-Earth is seen in the background. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. All smiles

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin laugh along with President Richard Nixon aboard the USS Hornet. The president was on hand to greet the astronauts after their splashdown in the Pacific on July 24, 1969. The crew was in a quarantine facility as a post-flight precaution. (Richard Nixon Foundation / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Laughing at quarantine

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin are in high spirits as they look out through the window of their mobile quarantine van on July 24, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Family reunion

    Neil Armstrong greets his son Mark on the telephone intercom system while his wife Janet and his other son Eric look on at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas on July 27, 1969. Armstrong and his crewmates were quarantined for 21 days after landing back on Earth, out of concern that they might have brought harmful germs back with them from the moon. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Free at last

    Neil Armstrong greets friends after being released from quarantine on Aug. 10, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Ticker-tape parade

    Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wave to crowds as they celebrate their return from the moon in a New York ticker-tape parade on Aug. 13, 1969. (Time & Life Pictures / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Behind a desk

    After Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA Headquarters in Washington. In this picture, Armstrong is seen in his Washington office on July 23, 1970. He resigned from NASA in 1971, and became active in academia and the corporate world. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Dealing with tragedy

    After the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Neil Armstrong was chosen to serve as the vice chairman of the presidential commission set up to investigate the tragedy. Armstrong is seen here listening to testimony before the commission in Washington on Feb. 11, 1986. Another member of the commission, David Acheson, listens in the background. (Scott Stewart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. 30 years later

    Neil Armstrong is awarded the Samuel P. Langley Medal in front of the Apollo 11 command module at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, during a ceremony on July 20, 1999, marking the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing. Vice President Al Gore, applauding at right, presented medals to Armstrong as well as to Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. (Joyce Naltchayan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A piece of history

    Museumgoers walk around the Apollo 11 command module at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington on July 16, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11's launch. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. 40 years later

    Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins stand in front of a lunar module exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington on July 19, 2009, the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (Mark Avino / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Hailed by the chief

    President Barack Obama speaks with Neil Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 crew members Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during an Oval Office meeting on July 20, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Hero on the Hill

    Retired NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong is welcomed by Norman Augustine (left), chairman of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, and retired astronaut Eugene Cernan (obscured), commander of Apollo 17 mission, before the three testified on Capitol Hill on May 12, 2010. Armstong, Cernan and Augustine testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the future of U.S. human spaceflight. During his testimony, Armstrong said he was "not confident" about the commercial market's ability to provide safe and reliable hardware for human spaceflight. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Gold medal

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong is presented with the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 16, 2011. The gold medals were presented to Armstrong and his fellow crew members from Apollo 11, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, and to retired senator-astronaut John Glenn, the first American to go into Earth orbit. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Celebration time

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong speaks during a celebration dinner at Ohio State University in Columbus, marking the 50th anniversary of retired senator-astronaut John Glenn's historic flight aboard Friendship 7. It was one of the last high-profile public events Armstrong attended. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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