Last week the sun set on the legacies of two men named Armstrong. In the first instance, storied astronaut, Neil Armstrong, died at age 82. In the second, champion bicyclist, Lance Armstrong, acquiesced to the insurmountable weight of innumerable allegations of cheating.

Last week the sun set on the legacies of two men named Armstrong. In the first instance, storied astronaut, Neil Armstrong, died at age 82. In the second, champion bicyclist, Lance Armstrong, acquiesced to the insurmountable weight of innumerable allegations of cheating.

By most accounts, Neil Armstrong eschewed the limelight. In an age when many of his peers parlayed their astronaut status into political careers and fortunes, he chose the subdued and quiet life of an engineering professor.

In stark contrast, Lance Armstrong, turned cycling prowess into commercial endorsements, movie cameos and a highly visible philanthropic enterprise.

The juxtaposition of these two heroic lives — one ended, one in tatters — begs that we interrogate our notions of heroism, bravery and the costs they exact. In Neil Armstrong’s case, we see a struggle to keep at bay all that Lance Armstrong coveted. There exists such a paucity of archival footage of the erstwhile astronaut, that the media strained to assemble a suitable post-mortem montage. Much beyond the moonwalk itself, the pioneering aviator left few public footprints.

Lance Armstrong’s trajectory was everything Neil Armstrong’s was not. He became a celebrity athlete in the way very few cyclists ever do. Ever heard of Eddy Merckx? How about Greg LeMond? Between them they hold eight Tour de France wins and more championships than space permits enumeration. Sure, they each have lines of very high end bicycles, but that fame is more of the “preaching to the choir” type.

Then came Lance. His story has all the elements of classic heroism. As Zeno Franco wrote for CNN.com, ‘Occasionally, there is a man or woman who appears to be almost superhuman in strength and physical ability. The Greeks had Achilles and Athena. Up until yesterday, we had Lance Armstrong.”

Lance certainly fit the superhuman bill. To have won cycling’s premier event seven times and having done so after beating multiple cancers certainly ups his standings in the tough guy rankings. There’s just one little problem: he cheated.

It’s an all-too-familiar story these days. Even so, whenever it happens, we stand around mouth agape at the specter of some fallen sports idol. Of course, watching the mighty fall on the sword of their own hubris has been a favorite spectator sport for eons.

Readers may recall the ancient Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus. In an effort to escape a great labyrinth and the Minotaur within, Daedalus fashions wings out of feathers and wax. He warns his son, Icarus, not to fly to low lest he be caught by the waves in the ocean, nor should he fly too high, lest the sun melt the wax. Icarus immediately becomes too enthralled with the power of flight. Gliding too close to the sun, his wings melt and he crashes to his death in the sea.

Ironically, Neil Armstrong’s story could have easily taken a similar course. Dare to leave the confines of Earth and be damned for the pride of it. As history shows, it didn’t. He and others after him made an impossible journey and returned as real heroes. Preferring the cool of moon to the heat of the sun, they flew higher and further than anyone ever had. Neil Armstrong could have come back to earth like Caesar parading into Rome, but he didn’t. He took what laurels were required and retired to quiescent privacy. Lance Armstrong took his own long ride, now made longer by folly. Instead of yellow jerseys along the Champs-Élysées, he chose the ignominy of so many other disgraced athletes before him.

Daedalus flew quietly home. Icarus drowned in the waves. Both flew. Only one really soared.