Neil Armstrong: The 'First Man' Decision

Photographed by Neil Armstrong, this image reveals the difficulty involved with crawling through the lunar module’s square hatch onto the porch. Buzz Aldrin’s backpack narrowly fits through the narrow aperture. Photo Credit: NASA

Much has been spoken and written in recent days about Neil Armstrong: that he was a quiet man, a thoughtful man, a man with no ego, a man who exuded uncommon calmness and possessed understated confidence in himself and his own abilities. It is no accident that Armstrong was one of the few American astronauts to have been appointed commander of every crew with which he was associated, in backup or prime capacities. He shadowed Gordon Cooper on Gemini V, before leading the hairy Gemini VIII mission in March 1966, after which he commanded the Apollo 8 backup crew and rotated smoothly into the left seat of Apollo 11, accomplishing humanity’s first piloted landing on the Moon in July 1969. Of all Armstrong’s assignments, though, none was more important than the decision of who – himself or Buzz Aldrin – would be first to set foot on the lunar surface.

When the two men, together with command module pilot Mike Collins, were named to Apollo 11 in January 1969, there was no certainty that the two missions ahead of theirs – Jim McDivitt’s Apollo 9 to test the lunar module in Earth orbit and Tom Stafford’s Apollo 10 to wring out the entire spacecraft around the Moon – would go smoothly. Nevertheless, Deke Slayton, the head of Flight Crew Operations, told Armstrong from their first day that he should tailor their training specifically with the lunar landing in mind. But who would be first to take those historic steps on alien soil? At their first press conference in January, the inevitable question was asked and Armstrong diplomatically handed it over to Slayton, who said the decision had still to be finalised.

In his critically acclaimed biography of Armstrong, First Man, James Hansen noted that there was “no doubt” in Buzz Aldrin’s mind – at least in those early weeks of 1969 – that he would be first to walk on the Moon. Aldrin’s rationale came from Gemini, during which the command pilot remained inside the ship and the pilot performed EVA. A handful of journalists shared this view and several even quoted George Mueller, NASA’s head of manned spaceflight, as saying that Aldrin would be first. However, in the days after the return of Apollo 9 in March, the situation changed and rumour spread like wildfire that Armstrong would be the first man to walk on the Moon. The reasons for this decision, which appears to have been formalised from April onwards, are both complex and intriguing.

This training image of Armstrong in the lunar module simulator is illustrative of the smallness of the cabin in which he and Aldrin were forced to function in the hours before and after their historic Moonwalk. Photo Credit: NASA

Amongst the earliest speculative comments was that Armstrong (though an ex-Navy aviator) was a civilian and NASA, a civilian organisation, did not want the spectre of militarism to blight humanity’s first footfalls on another world. At the time, of course, America was embroiled in the bloodbath of Vietnam and revelations of US atrocities at My Lai had only recently entered the public domain. Yet even Aldrin – though an Air Force colonel – had not seen active duty for almost six years and he regarded the idea as deeply offensive: in his mind, it insulted his parent service as “some sort of warmonger”.

Aldrin certainly approached fellow astronauts Gene Cernan and Al Bean, both of whom were deep in their training as lunar module pilots on Apollos 10 and 12, to seek their advice…and this created a sense that he was actively lobbying to be first on the Moon. In his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, Cernan was harshly critical of Aldrin. “Buzz had pursued this peculiar effort to sneak his way into history,” he wrote, “and was met at every turn by angry stares and muttered insults.”

In all fairness, Aldrin’s reasons for why he was best-suited to go outside first were valid and rooted in technical and operational merit. They were based clearly on the procedures and demands of the checklist. It was part of his role to plan the lunar surface activities and Armstrong, as commander, would have his hands full with the landing itself. Why, pondered Aldrin, should he be further saddled with the added demands of suiting up and plunging into the physiological intensity of the first Moonwalk? By his own admission, Armstrong was no fitness fanatic – in the months before Gemini VIII he famously set the exercise bicycle to its lowest setting, saying that it was best not to waste heartbeats – and Aldrin had performed an EVA on Gemini XII and knew its difficulties.

Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins relax during an egress training exercise in May 1969. Photo Credit: NASA

Then came the Navy precedent. Many of the Apollo commanders were naval aviators and turned to their seafaring experience for a reason why Armstrong should get out first. Andrew Chaikin summed it up with particular succinctness: “The Gemini precedent didn’t apply, because a lunar module sitting on the Moon wouldn’t be in flight – it would be in port. And as any naval officer knows, the protocol on such matters is clear: When the ship comes to port, the skipper is always first down the gangplank.” Deke Slayton agreed. Armstrong was the senior astronaut. It was as cut-and-dried as that.

Over the years, Aldrin has said that his motives were misinterpreted and that the outcome did not bother him as much as the need to reach a decision. In Hansen’s biography, Aldrin is quoted as admitting that it would have been “inappropriate” for him, the junior astronaut, to have gone outside first, uttered the famous first words and collected the first samples. Still, it is not difficult to speculate that the input of Aldrin’s father may have also been a contributory factor in the mix. When he first described the process of ‘lunar egress’ to his father, the older Aldrin reacted angrily, threatened to “do something about it” and tried to pull strings among his high-level friends at NASA and the Pentagon. Aldrin Senior, wrote Deke Slayton, “just couldn’t seem to leave well enough alone”.

At length, the decision came down to pure practicality…or so it seemed. The interior of the lunar module was about the size of a small broom cupboard and the square hatch opened inwards, hinged at its right edge. This required the astronaut on the right-hand side of the cabin – the lunar module pilot, Aldrin – to pull it open and stand back in his corner, whilst the commander got down on hands and knees and reversed himself through the hatch, onto the tiny porch to prepare to descend the nine-rung ladder to the surface. For Aldrin to go first would require the men to swap places in the cabin; a difficult act, given that both would be encased in pressurised suits and bulky backpacks. When faced with the risk of accidentally hitting a switch or circuit breaker, it was more straightforward and safer to go with the design and let Armstrong go first.

Finally, on 14 April 1969, with just three months to go to launch, a press conference at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, presided over by George Low, NASA’s head of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, revealed the outcome: Armstrong would be first. Next day, an editorial cartoon showed the two men opening the hatch immediately after landing as confused Alphonse and Gaston characters, both politely offering the other the chance to go first, whilst at the same time discreetly muscling their way ahead of each other. Humour aside, stories (including one by a disgruntled public affairs officer) claimed that Armstrong had ‘pulled rank’ and demanded that he be first on the Moon. This was a point endorsed by Mike Collins in his autobiography, Carrying the Fire: “Neil ignored [original plans] and exercised his commander’s prerogative to crawl out first.” Such stories garnered sufficient public interest for George Low himself to admit that preliminary studies had called for the lunar module pilot to go outside first, but that simulations and plans led to a recommendation for the commander to take the lead.

Despite the historic acclaim received by Armstrong (left) for his historic steps, the fact remains that both he and Aldrin were the first emissaries of Earth to make contact with another world. Photo Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin has argued that he was fine with the decision, although other astronauts, engineers and managers have said otherwise. Mike Collins recounted a distinct element of melancholy and coolness in the air immediately after the announcement.

And this, it would seem, was a final nail in the coffin for Aldrin being first on the Moon. Years later, Chris Kraft, who was in 1969 the head of Flight Operations at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, spoke candidly about the fact that Armstrong was the best choice to take the historic first step…not just because of the position of the hatch or his seniority or his civilian status or even the tasks to be performed on the surface. It was simple: Armstrong had no ego.

The first man on the Moon would be remembered as the Charles Lindbergh of his generation, “a hero…beyond any soldier or politician or inventor”, and it was Armstrong’s lack of ego, his calmness under duress, his quietness, his confidence and his desire not to put himself in the spotlight of fame and attention made him the perfect choice. The notion that Armstrong was chosen to be first because he was Neil Armstrong is supported by fellow astronaut Al Bean. He felt sure that, if NASA really wanted Aldrin to go out first, it would have been relatively easy for men to exchange places in the cabin prior to donning their backpacks. There would be no damage to the cabin, no damage to either man’s suit…and no problem. Bean’s point seemed to be that the choice of Armstrong to be first had already been made and that the way in which the hatch was hinged had been used as a convenient excuse by NASA management to end the debate.

Whatever the truth, the process of deciding the identity of one of the most famous men the world has ever known is now merely a historical curiosity. Yet the reality is that the name of Neil Armstrong – the ‘Lindbergh’ of his generation – will be remembered clearly for many centuries to come.


Tomorrow’s article will focus upon two of Armstrong’s most dramatic moments as an astronaut: landing on the Moon on Apollo 11 and landing on the Earth on Gemini VIII.

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