The veteran of three space shuttle missions, who now teaches physics and astronomy at Western Washington University in Bellingham, called Armstrong's July 20, 1969, lunar landing "pound for pound the most amazing accomplishment of human beings, period."
"Neil was a planetary hero," Nelson said Saturday. "Like other people have been saying, 1,000 years from now, Neil Armstrong will be one of the people we remember as a real pioneer."
Armstrong's death Saturday at age 82 provided people a chance to honor a space pioneer who achieved one of the greatest accomplishments in human history. It wasn't hard to find people in Western Washington whose lives had been inspired and transformed by the first human to walk on the moon.
Some, like Nelson, got to meet Armstrong in person at NASA gatherings. Others met him just once, or simply marveled from afar.
Despite his lofty achievements, people who met the first man on the moon described him as down-to-earth.
Before becoming an astronaut, Armstrong served as a Navy fighter pilot. While he often shied away from media attention, he appeared right at home among fellow aviators.
"I got to talk to him a little bit. He was just a regular guy," said Dave Waggoner, Paine Field's airport director. "Most of the Navy aviators I have met who have done really out-of-this-world things are just really regular guys."
Their encounter came during a Navy League dinner in the late 1980s, while Waggoner was stationed in San Diego. Armstrong happened to be sitting at the next table over.
"He was really special in that he just talked to us and he didn't put on airs, but you knew that he was special and that he'd been someplace," said Waggoner, 68, who would go on to serve as commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in the early 1990s.
Adrian Hunt, the executive director of the Flying Heritage Collection aircraft museum at Paine Field, talked about how much Armstrong's landing meant not just to Americans, but to people around the world. At the time of the moon landing, he was a 12-year-old growing up in England.
"Everyone in Europe thought it was amazing," he said. "It was incredibly important, inspirational, worldwide. And he was the face."
Future of Flight Foundation Executive Director Barry Smith said, "We're sad at his passing and we feel fortunate to have had him as a role model in our lifetimes."
Human progress isn't always a march forward.
Nelson, 62, said Armstrong's life should remind us of the current state of the U.S. space program. He called it "a national embarrassment."
The last moon mission was in 1972. Another great chapter in space exploration came to a close in 2011, when NASA shut down its space shuttle program after three decades.
That decision had been made years earlier, but Nelson still considers it a tragedy, and not just for the space program. For him, it's a symptom of how the country is losing ground as a major innovator.
"If we don't wake up, the rest of the world is going to pass us by," he said.
Armstrong showed what was possible when the most powerful country on Earth invested its intelligence, hard work and willpower in a great cause.
"He was the one who represented that because he was the one at the point of the spear," Nelson said. "This a chance to honor him -- he was a great man -- and to reflect on the actual achievement and to worry about why we're not continuing down that path."
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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