For Americans of a certain age, there are a couple "will never forget" events — President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and July 20, 1969, when the late Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step foot on the moon.
They were both turning points, one good and one bad. Kennedy's death was a sobering reminder to many who had embraced his "ask what you can do for your country" ideal that the real world could be an unforgiving place.
Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind," however, was a transformational moment which made all things look possible, including Kennedy's challenge to Congress in 1961: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."
We had done that — in the persons of Armstrong and Col. Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. — with five months to spare. When the lunar landing craft Eagle set down on the moon, Armstrong radioed what proved to be his second-most-famous line of the day: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed."
It sounds corny now, but for the hundreds of millions who watched the events of that day live back on Earth, the whole thing was absolutely electric. It was estimated that a full 20 percent of the world's population watched Armstrong climb down a ladder to the surface of the moon a few hours later, a feat few thought possible when Kennedy made his challenge. Man had left Earth and we were on our way outward. And we're still exploring.
It was fitting that the NASA rover Curiosity landed on Mars about three weeks before Neil Armstrong died Aug. 24 at age 82 in his home state of Ohio.
While the Mercury, Apollo and space shuttle programs are now long gone, our space program is not. The Hubble telescope is still sending awesome images from far across the universe, the international space station is still orbiting the Earth, and now the plutonium-powered Curiosity is about to do our most extensive exploration of Mars.
Armstrong, a quiet and unassuming man who shunned the spotlight, embodied much of what Americans still find compelling: intelligence, will, courage and humility.
It was, indeed, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," as Armstrong said that day.