Fifty years and one day after John F. Kennedy vowed to send an American to the moon, the nation said farewell to Neil Armstrong, the man who ultimately embodied that vision and endured as a symbol of patriotic ingenuity.

"He became a testament, a testament to all Americans of what can be achieved through vision and dedication," said retired astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last person to walk on the lunar surface. "Fate looked down kindly on us when she chose Neil to be the first to venture to another world."

Cernan was one of the approximately 1,500 people who gathered at the National Cathedral on Thursday to memorialize Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission, who died last month. Armstrong, who transfixed the world with his "giant leap for mankind" in July 1969, was 82.

(View more photos from the service)

Steps from the cathedral's "Space Window," which includes a moon rock the Apollo astronauts carried back to Earth, Cernan said Armstrong can now "finally touch the face of God."

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the commander or pilot of four missions into space, hailed Armstrong as "a brave and humble servant who never stopped dreaming."

"Those of us who have had the privilege to fly in space followed the trail he helped forge," Bolden said. "America's leadership in space and the confidence that we can go farther into the unknown and achieve great things as a people rests with the achievements of Neil and the brave men with whom he served."

Thursday's service amounted to a reunion for many of those space icons, including Armstrong's crewmates -- Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins -- and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet.

Former Treasury Secretary John Snow, a longtime Armstrong friend who delivered a tribute during the service, said afterward that the prolific hero sought a place in American life as a quiet inspiration.

"He was just a wonderful guy to know as a friend," Snow said. "He was the man who never wanted to be the legend. He rejected the idea of the legend but couldn't escape it, and part of the reason he couldn't escape was the heroic qualities he projected."

Cernan had a similar memory of the man whose family said will be buried at sea.

"It was never about Neil," he said. "It was about you."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com