The accomplishments in space in recent days – from the triumphant landing of Curiosity on Mars to Thursday’s long-awaited launch of the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission – have been unavoidably tinged with the acute sadness of having lost one of our greatest pioneers in exploration. Neil Armstrong’s passing has left a vast gulf, and the likes of this great man will never be seen again, but his accomplishments will last forever. Previous articles on this site in recent days have revisited how close Armstrong came to death on Gemini VIII and during the epochal Apollo 11 mission, but he also experienced numerous near-misses on Earth, too. Few of these were hairier than one mission in an unwieldy contraption, known as the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV), in May 1968. Flying that vehicle – darkly dubbed ‘The Flying Bedstead’ by the astronauts who braved its nerve-wracking quirks – with its four gangly legs and thrusters spitting to aid direction and lift, Armstrong came within a quarter of a second of death.
Unlike the Soviets, who used helicopters to simulate the descent to the surface of the Moon, NASA realised that such aircraft could not properly mimic the trajectories and sink rates of a lunar module during Powered Descent. “Helicopters,” wrote Armstrong’s biographer, James Hansen, “could approximate a variety of final descent trajectories, but to do that often required their flying for subsequent periods inside the so-called ‘Dead Man’s Curve’, the terminal phase…where it would be impossible to abort safely without crashing into the surface.” Instead, the Apollo commanders utilised the LLTV, which offered closer parallels to the real thing…at the expense of being notoriously dangerous.
Indeed, some NASA managers were so horrified by its well-above-average potential to kill its pilots that they called for its cancellation.
In Neil Armstrong’s mind, however, it was crucial. “It’s absolutely essential,” he told Chris Kraft, the head of Flight Operations, in early 1969. “It’s just darned good training.” The craft was built by Bell Aerosystems and comprised a tubular framework of aluminium alloy trusses and a General Electric turbofan engine, mounted on a central gimbal, such that its thrust could be directed ‘downwards’. This engine could lift the LLTV to an altitude of a few hundred feet, after which it would be throttled back to support five-sixths of its weight and thus better simulate the conditions of lunar gravity. A pair of hydrogen peroxide thrusters managed its rate of descent and horizontal motion, whilst 16 smaller jets, mounted in pairs, supplied pitch, roll and yaw controllability.
One notable addition was a digital control system, akin to the lunar module, rather than the traditional analogue ‘fly-by-wire’. Unfortunately, ‘dead periods’ in the circuitry meant that the pilot was unable to detect a loss of electrical power. Early on the morning of 6 May 1968, Neil Armstrong took off from Ellington Air Force Base, just outside Houston, and had the LLTV firmly under control for the first five minutes. He reached an altitude of a couple of hundred feet, but as he prepared to make a vertical descent and landing, the vehicle suddenly and inexplicably dropped. Controllability was suddenly non-existent, he told James Hansen, and the LLTV began to turn. He had no secondary control system and as the banking approached 30 degrees, Armstrong realised that there was no possibility of a recovery. With only milliseconds left to make a decision, he temporarily steadied the LLTV, climbed a little, but when the craft began to flip violently forward, backward and sideways, he ejected. Seconds later, the LLTV crashed and exploded in a holocaust of flame.
“If the trainer had tipped completely over and he had fired his ejection seat,” recalled Buzz Aldrin, “the rocket charge would have propelled him head-first into the concrete below. Neil held on for as long as he could, not wanting to abandon an expensive piece of hardware. At the last possible moment, he realised the thruster system had completely malfunctioned and he pulled his ejection handles.” According to the recollection of fellow astronaut Al Bean, the unflappable Armstrong dusted himself off, nursed a lacerated tongue and calmly returned to work in his office.
Their conversation was both darkly comedic and fully illustrative of the Right Stuff, which both men clearly possessed.
“I just heard the funniest story,” Bean said, after learning from a group of colleagues that Armstrong had missed death by seconds.
“What?” asked Armstrong, looking up from his desk.
“I heard that you bailed out of the LLTV an hour ago.”
“Yeah, I did,” came the nonchalant reply. “I lost control and had to bail out of the darn thing!”
Subsequent investigation revealed that a poorly designed thruster led to a propellant leak and the resulting loss of helium pressure caused the attitude thrusters to shut down and induced the loss of control. In October 1968, two reports urged improvements, but both strongly recommended continuing with the LLTV programme. Early in December, NASA pilot Joe Algranti performed a test flight from Ellington, but was himself forced to eject when large lateral-control oscillations developed. Not until April 1969 did LLTV operations resume and the sole surviving vehicle would be used by astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders, Pete Conrad, Dave Scott, Jim Lovell, John Young, Al Shepard, Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, Fred Haise and Armstrong. It was finally retired after Cernan’s final flight in November 1972, three weeks before Apollo 17. The trainer’s role in enabling the first manned landing on the Moon was summed up by Anders. “In my view,” he said, “the LLTV was a much undersung hero of the Apollo programme.”
As June wore into July 1969, and the clock at Cape Kennedy counted down to an Apollo 11 liftoff on the 16th, Armstrong had nineteen flights in the LLTV or its predecessor, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), in his pilot’s log. For three straight days in June, he flew the LLTV eight times, performing a variety of tricky descent profiles under a variety of different conditions. “No other astronaut,” wrote James Hansen, “before or after Armstrong flew the vehicle so much.” By launch day, he had spent 417 hours preparing for the Moon landing in either the training vehicles or in the lunar module simulator. Every second of that experience, every lurching movement and every thruster spurt from the LLRV or LLTV, every success and every failure, would prove essential in meeting the greatest challenge of his aviation career.
That aviation career continued beyond NASA. After Apollo 11, Armstrong spent a year working as the space agency’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics at NASA Headquarters and in May-June 1970 he and Buzz Aldrin visited the Soviet Union, witnessing the launch of Soyuz 9. His personal goal had always been to return to his engineering roots and in 1971 – despite only holding a bachelor’s credential – he entered the University of Cincinnati as Professor of Aerospace Engineering. Other roles which followed in his later life included seats on the boards of several companies and in 1986 he entered the public eye as a member of the presidential inquiry into the cause of the Challenger disaster. It is an awful coincidence that three individuals intimately associated with those dark days of the space programme – Morton Thiokol whistleblower Roger Boisjoly, astronaut and inquiry panel member Sally Ride and Armstrong himself – should have all passed away in 2012.
Armstrong’s quietness and lack of ego has been remarked upon by many observers over the years, but a story told by James Hansen perhaps sums up best how he avoided the spotlight and illustrates the warmth of his dealings with children. One day, Armstrong and his second wife, Carol, visited the home of some friends and the First Man on the Moon became captivated with their young daughter, five-year-old Emily. At one stage, Emily took Armstrong to her room to show off her book collection. “This book is on Winnie the Pooh,” she began, paraphrased by Hansen, “and this one is about Sleeping Beauty, and, oh, here is a book about Neil Armstrong. He was the first man on the Moon.”
Then the little girl was quiet for a moment.
“Oh!” she said. “Your name is Neil Armstrong, too, isn’t it?”
Emily’s tender age and childhood innocence provide a slightly comic endnote to the life of this great man. Perhaps, as was discussed in yesterday’s article, his close affinity with Emily stemmed from the loss of his own daughter, many years earlier. (Indeed, in the months after Apollo 11, whilst in London, a two-year-old girl caught Armstrong’s eye and he promptly picked her up and kissed her, to thunderous applause from the crowd.)
As well as many tributes, many tears have been shed in the last week, for a man of Armstrong’s character is unlikely ever to be seen again. Yet it is heartening and truly satisfying to record that all of us were fortunate to have been alive at the time of the greatest advancement in human science and exploration in history. We are fortunate in that we shared the world with one of humanity’s finest sons. In centuries to come, our descendants will envy us.
For we can say things about ourselves that only relatively few people in the two-million-year span of human history can. We lived in the time when our kind first broke the shackles of Earth and – as Aristotle once said – rose to the top of the atmosphere and beyond. We lived in the time when exploration of the Moon and Mars and the other planets turned from science fiction into reality. We lived at a time when we truly recognised the insignificance of the small world that we inhabit, its inherent fragility, our enormous duty of care and stewardship over it…and the extent of our own accomplishments. For when Neil Armstrong stood on the barren plain of Tranquillity, on a hot summer’s night, all those years ago, he must have reflected that he had travelled further than any human in history.
But more than all that, we can tell our children and our grandchildren that we were fortunate to share the world with a remarkable human being, the likes of whom will never – and can never – be seen again.
For we lived in the time of Neil Armstrong.Missions » Apollo »