Sep. 6, 2012 at 3:10 PM ET
The mortal remains of the first man to walk on the moon, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, are to be buried at sea in accordance with his wish — but the details "are still being worked out," family spokesman Rick Miller says.
The arrangement resonates eerily with the plans that would have been put into effect if Armstrong and his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, had perished during their history-making moon landing 43 years ago.
After a somber announcement from President Richard Nixon that the "men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," a member of the clergy would have gone ahead with the ceremonies for a burial at sea, commending the men's souls to "the deepest of the deep" and concluding with the Lord's Prayer. Fortunately, Apollo 11 was successful on July 20, 1969, bringing a level of fame to Armstrong and his "one small step" that has continued to this day.
Armstrong died on Aug. 25 at the age of 82, due to complications from heart surgery earlier in the month. A private service for family and friends was conducted last week in Cincinnati, and a public memorial service has been set for 10 a.m. ET on Sept. 13 at the Washington National Cathedral in the nation's capital. Hundreds of VIPs, family members and other mourners are expected to turn out for next week's memorial, with live video coverage streamed by NASA and the cathedral.
The late moonwalker was a Navy veteran with combat flying experience in the Korean War, and could have been buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery — as Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad, also a Navy vet, was in 1999. Among the other astronauts buried at Arlington are Apollo 15's Jim Irwin and some of the victims of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia tragedies.
But an Arlington burial was not what Armstrong wanted. "It was his wish" that the burial take place instead at sea, Miller told me today. Some of the details for the arrangements — "certainly the when and how, if not the where" — should be worked out by the time next week's public memorial service takes place, he said.
The U.S. Navy has well-established procedures for the sea burials of veterans and others who are eligible for the service. Arranging the details of the ceremony can take weeks. Several ports of embarkation are offered, in Virginia, Florida, California, Washington state and Hawaii. The traditions include the formation of an honor platoon, memorial readings, three volleys from a firing party, and the playing of taps. The casket or urn containing the remains may be slipped into sea, or ashes may be scattered by the officer in charge.
After Armstrong's death, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation calling for U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff on the day of the astronaut's interment — but that was widely interpreted as applying to the private memorial service on Aug. 31. If there's any update on additional tributes to Armstrong's life and legacy, we'll pass them along. Keep a watch on NeilArmstrongInfo.com for statements from the family.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.