Last Saturday’s passing of Neil Armstrong was perhaps the most devastating and saddening news to break in 2012. Coming on the heels of the untimely deaths of Challenger whistleblower Roger Boisjoly and astronauts Janice Voss, Alan ‘Dex’ Poindexter and Sally Ride, the world has lost yet another powerful voice in support of the spirit and realisation of adventure and discovery beyond our planet. With Armstrong, though, something else has been irretrievably lost: a legend, a timeless icon of his generation and ours, a true giant amongst men. Over the coming days, AmericaSpace will honour his memory and pay tribute to one of very few names which will be remembered clearly a thousand years hence in a series of articles about the pivotal moments of his life; from a test pilot whose future as an astronaut was shaped by the tragic death of an infant daughter to an advocate for science and exploration, whose quietness masked a brilliant engineering mind which never wavered in its strength or its tenacity.
The man who first picked up chunks of rock and clods of soil from the surface of the Moon had already travelled greatly before he ever undertook his greatest journey of all. He was born in Wapokoneta, Ohio, on 5 August 1930, of mixed Scots-Irish and German descent, the son of a government worker who moved around the state for several years. The Armstrongs resided in Warren and Jefferson and Moulton and St Mary’s, before settling in Wapakoneta in 1944. By this time, Neil was an active Boy Scout and fascinated by flying. “I began to focus on aviation probably at age eight or nine,” he told NASA’s oral historian, “and [was] inspired by what I’d read and seen. My intention was to be an aircraft designer. I later went into piloting because I thought a good designer ought to know the operational aspects of an airplane.”
When he enrolled at Purdue University in 1947 to study aeronautical engineering, he was only the second person in his family to undertake higher education and famously also learned to fly before he could drive. (He first flew solo aged 16, but his early logbook entries were lost in a fire at his Houston home in 1964.) Under the post-war Holloway Plan, Armstrong committed himself to four years of paid education in return for three years of naval service and a final two years at university. He was summoned to active duty in January 1949, reporting to Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida for flight training. Over the next 18 months, he qualified to land aboard the aircraft carriers Cabot and Wright, and, several days after his 20th birthday, became a naval aviator.
His initial assignments were to Naval Air Station San Diego, then to Fighter Squadron 51, where he flew the F-9F Panther and later landed his first jet on an aircraft carrier. By the late summer in 1951, Armstrong had been detailed to the Korean theatre of war and flew a total of 78 combat missions. His first taste of action came only days after arrival, whilst serving as an escort for a photographic reconnaissance aircraft over Songjin. Shortly thereafter, whilst making a low-altitude bombing run, his Panther sustained heavy gunfire and snagged an anti-aircraft cable. “If you’re going fast,” he said later, “a cable will make a very good knife.” Despite a sheared-off wing and a lost aileron, Armstrong managed to fly back over friendly territory, before ejecting. Instead of a water rescue, high winds forced his ejection seat over land, close to Pohang Airport, and he was picked up by a jeep driven by an old flight school roommate. By the time Armstrong left naval service in August 1952, he had been awarded the Air Medal, a Gold Star and the Korean Service Medal and Engagement Star. For the next eight years, he remained a junior lieutenant in the Naval Reserve.
After Korea and his departure from the regular Navy, Armstrong completed his degree at Purdue in 1955 and met his future wife, home economics student Janet Shearon. They were married in January 1956 and their union would endure for more than three decades, producing three children, one of whom – a daughter, Karen, nicknamed ‘Muffy’ – tragically died in infancy. A subsequent article in this series will discuss the implications of Muffy’s death to Armstrong’s subsequent career.
His aviation career expanded into experimental piloting when he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner of NASA, and was initially based at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. Whilst there, he participated in the evaluation of new anti-icing aircraft systems and high-Mach-number heat-transfer measurements, before moving to the High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California to fly chase on drops of experimental aircraft. There, in an F-100 Super Sabre, he flew supersonically for the first time. On one occasion, flying with Stan Butchart in a B-29 Superfortress, Armstrong was directed to airdrop a Douglas-built Skyrocket supersonic research vehicle. However, upon reaching the release altitude, one of the B-29’s four engines shut down and its propellor began to windmill in the airstream. Immediately after dropping the Skyrocket, the propellor disintegrated and its debris effectively disabled two further engines. Nevertheless, Butchart and Armstrong successfully landed the behemoth aircraft using its sole remaining engine.
His first flight in a rocket-propelled vehicle came in August 1957 aboard the Bell X-1B, reaching an altitude of 30 miles, and three years later he completed the first of seven missions aboard North American Aviation’s famous X-15, to the reach very edge of space. On one of these flights, in April 1962, just a few months before joining NASA’s astronaut corps, he reached an altitude of almost 40 miles. In descending, he held up the X-15’s nose for too long and the aircraft literally ‘bounced’ off the atmosphere and overshot the landing site, but he returned and safely touched down. Although he was not one of the handful of X-15 pilots who actually reached space, exceeding 50 miles, Armstrong’s abilities in the rocket aircraft have been widely praised. The late NASA research flier Milt Thompson called him “the most technically capable” X-15 pilot.
In November 1960, by now flying for NASA as a civilian research pilot, Armstrong was chosen for the ill-fated Dyna-Soar effort, ultimately leaving the project in the summer of 1962 as the selection process for the second group of astronauts got underway. At around the same time, he last flew the X-15, achieving a peak velocity of Mach 5.74. When his name was announced by NASA in September, he became one of only two civilian astronauts. Although Deke Slayton later wrote that nobody pressured him to hire civilians, fellow selectee Jim Lovell felt that Armstrong’s extensive flying history within NACA and NASA made him an obvious choice for the final cut. In fact, Armstrong’s application had arrived a week after the 1 June 1962 deadline, but, according to Flight Crew Operations assistant director Dick Day, “he was so far and away the best qualified…[that] we wanted him in”. Even at the youthful age of 31, Armstrong stood out.
As a new astronaut, he came to be regarded as by far the quietest and most thoughtful; indeed, his wife Janet once told Life magazine that ‘silence’ was an answer to a question and the word ‘no’ was an argument! As astronaut Frank Borman put it: “When he said something, it was worth listening to.” His Apollo 11 comrades Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin both characterised his nature as “reserved”, and Gemini VIII crewmate Dave Scott described him as “cool, calm and energised”, who never operated in a frantic manner, but who could identify and resolve problems quickly, efficiently and smartly.
A couple of days before Christmas 1968, as Apollo 8 was flying towards the Moon, Armstrong arrived in Mission Control as usual in his role as the mission’s backup commander. Much of his time had been spent sitting at the Capcom’s mike or discussing experiments and making adjustments and recommendations to the flight plan. This day, however, ended quite differently. At some point in the afternoon, Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton pulled Armstrong aside for what biographer James Hansen described as “a historic conversation”.
That conversation – its implications and its far-reaching significance – would reshape the rest of his life and chart the future course of our species. Truly, the name of Neil Alden Armstrong will never be forgotten and the powerful presence and enormous respect in which he was regarded in his lifetime should inject renewed vigour into our efforts to return to a robust exploration beyond Earth orbit with humans. Armstrong was a man who never wished to gaze longingly upon the glories of the past, but to take the necessary steps to enable the explorations of the future. It was he who famously lamented that in 1969 his name was everywhere to be found in school science books…and yet today is more likely to appear in a school history book.
This saddening indictment of our reluctance to return to the Moon is matched only by the reminiscences of his former crewmates. One can almost hear the anguish in the words of Buzz Aldrin, who wrote that he “truly hoped” that the three ‘amiable strangers’ of Apollo 11 would stand together in July 2019 for the 50th anniversary of Eagle’s historic landing on the rugged Sea of Tranquillity. “Regrettably,” Aldrin concluded, “this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit.” The Obama White House – whose devastating plans for NASA’s future exploration plans in 2010 met stiff and stubborn resistance from Armstrong – paid its own tribute to a man who was “among the greatest of American heroes – not just of his time, but of all time”.
It can be hoped, however, that our species will commit to deeds, as well as words, to honour his memory. The wishes of the Armstrong family are for each of us to venture outside on a clear night and give Neil a wink – and this author, for one, has done just that in recent days – but surely a more fitting and proper memorial will be achieved when we no longer simply ‘wink’ at the Moon…but someday return to the Moon. And when that glorious day finally comes, it must be to stay.
Tomorrow’s article will focus upon Armstrong’s selection and training for Apollo 11.