Three generations of human beings (and countless more yet to be born) have been and will be inspired by the accomplishments of Neil Armstrong, including many readers of this site and the entire AmericaSpace team of writers. Yet the great man himself drew his own inspiration from various boyhood and lifetime heroes: from his parents, Steve and Viola, who instilled a work ethic from a young age, to Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, and Chuck Yeager, the first man to burst through the sound barrier…to Armstrong’s own infant daughter, Karen. And it is the tragically inspiring tale of Karen – whom Armstrong and his first wife, Janet, nicknamed ‘Muffy’ – which is amongst the most heart-rending and touching of his entire life.
Karen entered the world on 13 April 1959 and departed it in the most appalling of circumstances, less than three years later. According to James Hansen, in his acclaimed biography First Man, Armstrong chose the nickname ‘Muffy’ or ‘Muffie’ as “an endearing form of Muffin”. One day, not long after her second birthday, the little girl suffered a fall in the park which produced a nasty bump to the head. She returned home with a nosebleed and concussion, but by that evening things took a distinctly uglier turn: for Muffy’s eyes seemed not to be functioning correctly. Several visits to doctors and ophthalmologists seemed unable to cure the problem: the girl tripped frequently, her eyes were crossed and she was unable to speak coherently.
Subsequent medical investigation revealed that Muffy had a glioma of the pons – a malignant tumour in the base of her brain stem – and although relatively rare in children, the prognosis for recovery (even today) remains poor. X-ray treatments to reduce the size of the tumour hit the little girl particularly hard, rendering her unable to walk, stand – but, according to Janet, quoted by Hansen, “she never, ever complained”. Armstrong was at the time a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and his flight logs reveal that he took time off in June and July 1961 to be with Muffy at the hospital. Slowly, she learned to crawl again, her eyes straightened and she returned home to the Armstrongs’ Juniper Hills cabin. Despite her apparent positive response to the radiation therapy, and the eternal hope and optimism, Armstrong’s brother-in-law, the physician Jack Hoffmann, was convinced that Muffy would not survive more than six months.
By the end of 1961, the symptoms returned and the only option was cobalt treatment. This was relatively new at the time and although it could destroy the cancerous cells, it also irreparably harmed healthy ones, too, and little Muffy could not take it. At length, the doctors sat down with the Armstrongs and recommended that she would be happier at home. “She made it through Christmas,” Janet told Hansen, but admitted that “she couldn’t walk by this time – she could crawl – but she was still able to enjoy Christmas. It seems like the day Christmas was over, she just went downhill. It just overcame her.”
Muffy died on 28 January 1962. It was the Armstrongs’ sixth wedding anniversary.
The Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base grounded all of its aircraft on the day of her funeral, as a mark of respect. Despite his grief, Armstrong returned stoically to work on his various projects, including the F5D Skylancer, the X-20 Dyna-Soar and the X-15. In April 1962, he flew to an altitude of 207,500 feet in the X-15, but held the aircraft’s nose up for too long during descent, causing the vehicle to ‘bounce’ off the atmosphere, back up to 140,000 feet, and Armstrong overshot his landing site by more than 40 miles. He turned back towards the landing area and managed to touch down safely, narrowing missing a patch of Joshua trees at the south end of the runway.
Much has been written over the years that it was Muffy’s death which inspired Armstrong to enter the hallowed ranks of NASA and its astronaut corps. This is not entirely accurate, for he had already been selected in 1958 for the Air Force’s Man in Space Soonest (MISS) project and for Boeing’s Dyna-Soar. (In fact, on 15 March 1962, only weeks after his daughter’s death, Armstrong was named as one of six pilots to fly Dyna-Soar. Unfortunately, the project was later cancelled.) Meanwhile, his application to join NASA’s second astronaut class arrived a week after the 1 June 1962 deadline, but Dick Day, assistant head of Flight Crew Operations, had previously worked with Armstrong at Edwards and quietly slipped it into the pack before anyone noticed. “He was so far and away the best qualified…[that] we wanted him in.”
In James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, it is difficult to discern a link between the tragedy of Muffy’s passing and his own application to enter the rank of the NASA astronauts. “The death of his little girl,” remembered his sister, June, “caused him to invest those energies into something very positive and that’s when he started into the space programme.” By his own admission, Armstrong was excited by the X-15 – it was real and even the Dyna-Soar was a realistic possibility – but President John Kennedy’s lunar goal “was just so overpoweringly exciting that I decided to give us these other opportunities to pursue it”. Years later, Armstrong credited Dick Day (who died in 2004) with having enabled him to make the decision to transfer from Edwards to Houston.
Certainly, by the midsummer of 1962, several newspapers, including the Washington Evening Star on 18 July, were predicting the selection of Armstrong as NASA’s first civilian astronaut. The Star even made a quirkily prophetic comment: “Conceivably,” the newspaper told its readers, “he could command America’s first attempt to land men on the Moon.” Even future Apollo 11 crewmate Mike Collins, who also applied for selection in 1962, but was ultimately picked as an astronaut a year later, wrote to his father of his conviction that Armstrong would probably be on NASA’s list of selectees, “unless his physical discloses some major problem”. According to Collins, Armstrong “has by far the best background of…the civilians under consideration”.
On 13 September, Armstrong received the telephone call from Deke Slayton, asking him to join the NASA corps. Two days later, he checked into Houston’s Rice Hotel, under the assumed name of ‘Max Peck’, to meet the eight other new astronauts – Frank Borman, Pete Conrad, Jim Lovell, Jim McDivitt, Elliot See, Tom Stafford, Ed White and John Young – and their managers and be formally introduced to the world’s press. Years later, this astronaut class, which came to be nicknamed ‘The New Nine’, would be recognised by many as one of the finest all-round groups ever selected by NASA…and Armstrong stood out among them. Although he was not the only civilian (for Elliot See was a civilian pilot for General Electric, albeit with a naval background), Armstrong was alone in the class for having flown a rocket-propelled aircraft and had just recently won the coveted Octave Chanute Award for the pilot who had contributed most to the aerospace sciences that year.
In February 1965, Armstrong received his first space mission assignment, albeit in a backup capacity, to shadow Gordon Cooper as command pilot of Gemini V. Working with his own pilot, Elliot See, and the prime pilot, Pete Conrad, the foursome immersed themselves in the minutiae of an extremely challenging mission which would attempt to seize from the Soviet Union the record for the longest manned flight. In fact, the impromptu motto for Gemini V was ‘Eight Days or Bust’. A few weeks after Cooper and Conrad returned from space, and Armstrong was thus freed from his own mission duties, he was named as command pilot of the Gemini VIII prime crew, teamed with pilot Dave Scott. The trials and tribulations of this flight were discussed in yesterday’s article and the sheer volume of scheduled tasks and their inherent complexity – performing the first rendezvous and docking in space with an unmanned target vehicle, followed by co-ordinated manoeuvres, a tricky EVA and a precision splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean – suggests the confidence in which Armstrong and his abilities were held by NASA brass.
The question of whether Muffy’s death thus inspired Neil Armstrong to turn from his career as a civilian test pilot, flying the X-15 and pointed towards Dyna-Soar, and enter the astronaut corps in Houston, remains unanswered. Certainly, many of his colleagues at Edwards were surprised in the summer of 1962 when they learned of his selection, for Armstrong had given no hint of making any such move. In their own admissions to James Hansen, Armstrong’s family members revealed that the future First Man on the Moon suffered greatly in the wake of Muffy’s death, but chose to display a face of stoicism and used his work as a coping mechanism. However, it would be a comforting thought to suppose that perhaps a combination of Armstrong’s own genius and the memory of his little daughter served to guide his steps further than any human had ever travelled before.
Tomorrow’s article will focus upon Armstrong’s Apollo 11 training in the notorious Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) and how one incident brought him within milliseconds of death.
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