Environment & Science

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director reflects on Neil Armstrong's influence

File photo of astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11.
File photo of astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

NASA's current Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Dr. Charles Elachi remembers the exact moment he saw Neil Armstrong, who died Saturday at 82, step foot on the moon:

"[I was a] grad student at Caltech and I was watching it from the lounge of one of the graduate student houses. And I will never forget that moment," he recalled.

Elachi said that footstep motivated him to pursue a career in space exploration, adding that Armstrong's legacy inspired many others to further the field.

"We are all standing on his shoulders. [He] really propelled and opened the space frontier both physically and intellectually," he continued.

The Curiosity rover's landing on Mars early August marked the JPL team's most recent success. Elachi said memories of Armstrong underlie the accomplishment.

"Every time we look at the trails of the rover, the tracks of the rover on Mars, I always think about the footsteps that he left on the moon," Elachi said.

Director since 2001, Elachi has lead JPL's through many successes and failures, and he said Armstrong's spirit leads the JPL team by example.

"The combination of his personal courage and the fact that he was so humble about it – that combination is unique in a person who is really considered the best of the American spirit."