When, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong, who has died aged 82, made his celebrated "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" by becoming the first human being to walk on the moon, he was indeed the "reluctant hero" of his family's apt description.

As the commander of the US Apollo 11 spacecraft, in which he was accompanied by Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the pilot of the Eagle lunar landing module and Michael Collins, pilot of the Columbia command module, he became the first man on the moon because he had arrived at the head of the queue of around 20 highly experienced and motivated astronauts. They had been taking it in turns to conduct the 22 manned spaceflights needed to learn the techniques for travelling to the Earth's nearest neighbour – an objective he pursued with great seriousness.

Space correspondents like myself, attending every mission, soon found that Armstrong was unique among his colleagues. A member of the second group to be selected, he was unlike all the others, self-conscious and deeply introverted. He did not enjoy talking to us unless we were fully informed; the trivial questions posed by general reporters he found unbearable, and he remained a quietly dignified figure for the rest of his life, working principally as an engineering academic and businessman.

Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong had acquired his student pilot's licence by the age of 16. In 1947, he went to Purdue University on a navy scholarship to study aeronautical engineering, but two years later the Korean war intervened, and he flew 78 combat missions. Eventually he completed his BSc at Purdue and an MSc in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California.

In 1955 he went to Cleveland, Ohio, as a civilian research pilot at the Lewis Research Centre of what became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), and later that year to Edwards Air Force Base in California. As a pioneer of many high-speed aircraft, involved in both piloting and engineering, he flew over 200 different models, including jets, rockets, helicopters and gliders.

When Nasa embarked on its second astronaut training programme in 1962, he was one of the nine test pilots chosen. Four years later, on Gemini 8 for his first space venture, Armstrong brought his experience into play when the spacecraft continued spinning after completing a docking manoeuvre. The situation could have become life-threatening and the mission was abandoned after only a day in orbit.

President John F Kennedy's end-of-the-decade target for a manned moon landing was a constant target for Nasa, and early in 1969 I learned from George Low, its head of manned spaceflight, that the Apollo 11 crew would be attempting the first such expedition.

While Armstrong would be in command, Aldrin would be the first to step on the moon; Armstrong would follow the naval tradition of being the last to leave the ship. So it came as a shock when I got the flight plan and press kit a few weeks ahead of the launch, showing that Armstrong would be first out.

There was much resentment about the change, publicly expressed by Aldrin's father, a senior military man. Buzz fretted and raised it internally, but Armstrong steadfastly refused to discuss it. Nasa said the change was merely because it was physically easier for Armstrong to exit the lunar lander first.

Later I learned that Low and other top Nasa officials had suddenly realised that the first man on the moon would become immortal in the public's eyes. The grave Armstrong, they realised, was much more suited to the role than Aldrin, a brilliant and outspoken mathematician, always liable to challenge and disagree with authority.

Apollo 11 took off on 16 July, and four days later the Eagle descended on to a plain near the south-western edge of the Sea of Tranquillity. Around six and a half hours later, Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module, the first human being to set foot on the moon. After 20 minutes Aldrin joined him to address hundreds of millions of television viewers all over the world, watching in black and white, and collect rocks.

An interesting consequence is that we do not have a single clear photograph of Armstrong on the lunar surface [see footnote]. Aldrin was scheduled in the flight plan – which covered every second of their nearly three hours there – to take the historic picture of the first man on the moon standing beside the lunar module and its plaque reading: "We came in peace for all mankind." When the time came, Armstrong duly took up his position, and held out the camera for Aldrin to take it. Aldrin, busy collecting lunar samples and setting out scientific equipment on the surface, replied: "No, you keep it," and carried on. Nothing intentional, he said later, just the way it happened.

So the surface pictures we do have are all of Aldrin taken by Amstrong, the most famous of them being the one in which Armstrong is reflected in Aldrin's facepiece. Armstrong, following military tradition, never complained, never explained.

The ceremonial aspect continued with the raising of the American flag and a radiotelephone conversation with President Richard Nixon. Experiments were completed, and soil and rocks gathered. After more than 21 hours on the lunar surface, the Eagle took off to rejoin the Columbia command module, in which Collins had been orbiting the moon. Splashdown in the Pacific on 24 July was followed by decontamination procedures, and the geological samples and film were flown to Nasa mission control in Houston, Texas.

The three astronauts were naturally in demand for tours around the world, and once that excitement had died down, Armstrong became deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at the Nasa headquarters office of advanced research and technology in Washington until 1971, when he resigned, put off by the prospect of continuing in the organisation with a desk job. He was professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati for the next eight years, and for two decades after that acted as director of a variety of corporations.

He served on the National Commission on Space, a presidential body examining the prospects for taking the space programme further, in 1985-86, and in 1986 was also vice-chairman of the committee investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. During the early 1990s he presented an aviation documentary series for television entitled First Flights.

Though conscious that he had enjoyed a figurehead role for a project that had involved thousands of people, Armstrong was always gracious about celebrating achievements in space to date. In February this year he spoke at an event at Ohio State University to mark the 50th anniversary of the orbiting of the Earth by the first American to do so, John Glenn.

A couple of hours after that first landing in July 1969, I talked to Wernher von Braun, whose Saturn V rockets had made it all possible. He gave me a copy of his longterm plan. It showed the first humans landing on Mars in the 1980s. He died in 1977, so never knew that his target would be missed by around 100 years. Armstrong retained his interest in space exploration policy, and in 2010 went on camera to express his disappointment at the cancellation of plans to send astronauts back to the moon. He later went on to doubt that depending on commercial companies would revive the space effort.

Armstrong is survived by his second wife, Carol, and by two sons from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

• Neil Alden Armstrong, astronaut, born 5 August 1930; died 25 August 2012

• This footnote was appended on 28 August 2012. There is, in fact, one photograph of Armstrong on the moon. An image of Armstrong working on the base of the lunar module in the Sea of Tranquility bears the following agency caption: The Moon -- 20 Jul 1969 -- Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from Aldrin's panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface -- Picture by Edwin Aldrin/Lightroom Photos/NASA


Reginald Turnill

The GuardianTramp

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