Neil Armstrong – Mini Biography (TV-14; 4:03) Neil Armstrong joined the organization that would become NASA in 1962 and was command pilot for his first mission, Gemini VIII, in 1966. He was spacecraft commander for Apollo 11 and the first man to walk on the moon.
In February of 2002 when Neil Armstrong stepped to a podium at the National Press Club to discuss the Greatest Achievements in Engineering during the 20 th century he described himself as “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”
“I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession,” he said.
A man who wanted nothing more than to be remembered as a dedicated engineer will instead be heralded forever as the first person to step on surface of the moon. It was and is among the greatest achievements in engineering and science not just in the 20 th century, but also for all time.
As commander of the Apollo 11 space mission, on July 20, 1969 Armstrong maneuvered his lunar lander that was running short of fuel, skimmed it above the surface of the moon and finally found a safe place to set down.
It was a day that changed the world forever.
Until that moment, flying to the moon was used to describe an impossible task. “You might as well think you can fly to the moon as make that old jalopy run again,” people would say.
But following Apollo 11 and five subsequent successful lunar landings, exploration of the moon was used as proof that anything is possible if people set their minds to it. The assertion became: If we can go to the moon then we can cure cancer, or heart disease or any of the other endless problems that plague people and our times – if we set our mind to it.
Upon his return to earth just short of his 40 th birthday, Armstrong was an instant icon. There was no place on the globe were he could go without being recognized and idolized.
He described his journey to the moon and back in minute detail to NASA engineers, administrators and space historians. But, he turned down endless requests for media interviews along with TV and public appearances. In an age of celebrity, he declined his fame, asked to be treated like everyone else and in the process became an even larger-than- life hero for his modesty and unwillingness to capitalize on his place in history. People soon learned that the man on the moon was actually quite down to earth.
“No human being could have handled the bright glare of international fame or the instant transformation into a historic and cultural icon better than Neil,” said his biographer, James Hansen, a history professor at Auburn University.
Neil Armstrong was born August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, a town of 5,000 people in those days. His father was an auditor for the state of Ohio. The family moved frequently for his father’s work.
Their last move was in 1944 back to Wapakoneta where Armstrong was an Eagle Boy Scout, built model airplanes, finished high school and took flying lessons, receiving his pilot’s license before he could legally drive a car. He had experienced his first airplane ride at the age of 5 when he and his father flew aboard a Ford Trimotor, also known as the “Tin Goose.”
Armstrong graduated high school in 1947. Having skipped a grade, he had just turned 17 years old when he walked onto the Purdue University campus to study aeronautical engineering – a self-described “scared freshman” surrounded by much older, World War II veterans attending college on the G.I. Bill. His interests extended beyond engineering. He could play seven instruments, one of them the baritone horn in the Purdue “All-American” Marching band.
He came to Purdue on a scholarship from the Naval Aviation College Program. Students accepted into the program took two years of college, followed by three years of active duty, and then returned to finish their undergraduate degree.
He was actually called to active duty in January of 1949 – midway through his sophomore year. He went to Pensacola, Florida and Corpus Christi, Texas for flight training and was sent to Korea in the fall of 1951. During the Korean War he flew F9F2 Panthers, completing 78 combat missions. On one he lost part of his wing over enemy territory and had to eject, but was quickly recovered by U.S. Marines.
He returned to Purdue in 1952 and graduated in January of 1955.
Armstrong’s original plan had been to work in aeronautical engineering design, but his experience in the Navy reignited a love for flying. He wanted to be a test pilot and got a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – the NACA, which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He started in Cleveland, Ohio but soon moved to Edwards Air Force Base, in California.
He tested many high-speed aircraft, including the X-15, which could reach more than 4,000 miles per hour and climb to the edge of space. He also became involved with the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar program to develop a spacecraft that could land safely back on earth.
In January of 1956, Armstrong married Janet Shearon. They had met at Purdue. Their first son, Eric, was born in 1957 followed by a daughter Karen in 1959. Karen died of complications related to an inoperable brain tumor in January 1962. The following year, the Armstrongs had their third child, Mark.
In 1962 Armstrong applied and was accepted in the second class of NASA astronauts. He was soon assigned command pilot for Gemini VIII. He and fellow astronaut David Scott were launched into earth orbit on March 16, 1966. While in orbit, they were able to accomplish the first space docking.
But, after the successful docking the two space vehicles began to spin uncontrollably. Armstrong decided to undock, but the spinning increased, reaching one revolution per second. He was able to regain control of the capsule, but the mission had to be cut short. He was later praised for his cool, fast and accurate decision-making.
In January of 1969 Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were announced as the astronauts for Apollo 11. But it was not certain that would become the first mission to the moon until the successful completion of Apollo 10 in late May of 1969.
Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. The three astronauts were in the Command Service Module that had been named Columbia. Attached to Columbia was the lunar module, Eagle.
On July 20 the Eagle undocked, separated from Columbia and began the descent to the moon. As the Eagle got closer to the surface, Armstrong could see the computer controlling the descent was taking them to a crater as big as a football field filled with boulders the size of cars.
“Pretty rocky area,” he radioed back to earth. About 500 feet above the surface he took manual control of the lander, which he had always planned to do.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here,” Armstrong finally radioed. “The Eagle has landed.”
The lunar lander touched the surface of the moon at 4:18 p.m. EDT. Thirty seconds of fuel remained. At 10:56 p.m. EDT Armstrong stepped down a ladder and became the first person to stand on the moon.
Engineers aren’t known for writing and philosophy. But Armstrong’s words, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” have become among the most famous ever spoken.
In 1979 as the 10th anniversary of the moon landing approached he was asked about his “one small step” choice of words.
“That wasn’t the important thing I said that day,” he noted. “The important thing I said was ‘the Eagle has landed.'”
Landing on the moon was difficult, he said. Walking was for show. He believed his chances of a successful landing were far from certain – at best 50-50. But those odds were good enough for him.
For about two and a half hours, Armstrong and Aldrin collected moon rock samples and conducted experiments. They also took photographs, including their own footprints. They returned to earth on July 24.
The Apollo 11 astronauts were given a hero’s welcome home. Crowds lined the streets of New York City to cheer them with a ticker-tape parade. They toured around the globe. Armstrong received numerous awards for his efforts, including the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He was decorated by 17 countries.
On his return to a world filled with adulation he was sometimes described as “reticent,” “shy,” “a reluctant hero.” The media sometimes incorrectly depicted him as withdrawn. His fellow astronauts described him as the person who carried the title of “first man on the moon” better than anyone else ever could. People who knew him described him as modest, friendly and great fun to be around and to talk with – on any subject but the moon landing that he did not generally discuss. Armstrong felt he shared that accomplishment with all the astronauts and all the people who worked for NASA and the private contractors.
As an icon, after the Apollo 11 mission Armstrong knew he would never fly in space again. But he did not retire or withdraw. He remained with NASA serving as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics, in Washington, D.C. until 1971.
He next joined the faculty of the University of Cincinnati as a professor of aerospace engineering from 1971 to 1979. He served on corporate boards. Staying active in his field, from 1982 to 1992 he served as chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation, Inc., in Charlottesville, VA. He gave occasional talks and appeared at media events recognizing significant moon landing anniversaries. He was active at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. While late in his life he stopped signing autographs, when he visited the Purdue campus he posed endlessly for photographs with people.
In 1986 he served as vice chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. The commission investigated the explosion of Challenger that took the lives of its crew.
Neil and Janet Armstrong separated in 1992. In 1994 he married Carol Knight in the Cincinnati area.
Armstrong underwent a heart bypass operation in August 2012. On August 25, at the age of 82, he died of complications resulting from cardiovascular surgery. His second wife, Carol, of Indian Hill, Ohio, and two sons from his first marriage survive. In death he took with him sights and emotions known but to 12 men in all the history of the world – none before Neil Armstrong.
Ten years after his lunar mission Armstrong was asked if he ever paused to look up at a bright, full moon. He didn’t pause a moment.
“Yes,” he said. “I probably look at it more now. I see places where I’ve been.”
During a Celebration of Life service for Armstrong at the National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C., Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon, delivered the eulogy. A fellow Purdue alumnus, Armstrong and Cernan had been friends since the early 1960s.
“Neil Armstrong was a sincerely humble man of impeccable integrity, who reluctantly accepted his role of the first human to walk on another world,” Cernan said. “And when he did, he became a testament to all Americans of what can be achieved through vision and dedication.
“In Neil’s mind, it was never about Neil,” Cernan said. “Neil considered that he was just the tip of the arrow always giving way to some 400,000 equally committed and dedicated Americans — Americans who were the strength behind the bow. And therein lies the strength and character of Neil Armstrong.”
In announcing his death, Armstrong’s family said: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty.
“And the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong. And give him a wink.”