Neil Armstrong, First Man On The Moon: 1930-2012
These days, it is easy to take the moon landing for granted. Most of us recall Kennedy's famous phrase promising to send a man to the moon, but many gloss over the second phrase, “and then return him safely to earth.” Despite the numerous tests and simulations, many at NASA and in the White House were far from sure that the astronauts would be able to return. What if there was some unforeseen reaction by the Eagle to the moon's gravity, or composition of the surface?
And so, as Apollo 11 approached the moon, White House speechwriter William Safire prepared a statement to be delivered by the President in case of the worst. If it became necessary to leave Armstrong and Aldrin behind, a solemn Nixon would have delivered a eulogy noting, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."
Fortunately, the speech remained undelivered. Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle, onto the moon and into the pages of history.
It is safe to say that humans will remember Armstrong long after they forget his president or his country. For the first time in human history, a human had stepped onto another planet. But for Armstrong, moon or not, it was just another day at work.
Before Neil Armstrong was an icon, or an astronaut, he was a pilot.
His boyhood hero was Charles Lindbergh, whose journey across the Atlantic set him dreaming of ways to break the boundaries of flight. He learned to fly, according to the New York Times, before he even got his driver's license. Later, when the time came for college, he studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue. But his dreams took a big hit with the major aeronautical event of 1947, his freshman year, when Chuck Yeager flew a Bell X-1 through the sound barrier.
Armstrong recalled: “All in all, for someone who was immersed in, fascinated by, and dedicated to flight, I was disappointed by the wrinkle in history that had brought me along one generation late. I had missed all the great times and adventures in flight.”
The Korean War interrupted his studies, and Armstrong became a fighter pilot. Returning to Purdue after the war, his love for flying renewed, he completed his engineering studies and got a job as an experimental test pilot for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (which would one day evolve into NASA), flying experimental aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base. He flew the X-15 and X-20, the latter of which was an early prototype for potential spacecraft. Indeed, Armstrong sometimes undertook flights to the edge of space.
In 1962, Armstrong applied and was selected to be included in NASA's Astronaut Group 2, the team of astronauts that would train for a lunar landing. He first commanded the vehicle Apollo 8, which was designed to test rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft. This put him in position to command Apollo 11, designated as the mission to the moon.
Armstrong was renowned in many quarters for his 'nerves of steel,' and the moon landing proved no different. During their descent, Armstrong noticed that they were on target to overshoot their landing site, and started scanning for alternatives. For some tense moments, they could find no flat surface, and were in danger of running out of fuel for the return. Finally, they located a spot, and the Eagle touched down – with less than 50 seconds of fuel left.
The Apollo mission yielded valuable scientific data. Perhaps the most significant result was the resolution of a long debated question: the moon's origin. Elizabeth Bilson, a Cornell researcher, recalls her analysis of the moon rocks:
“We got samples which were just a few grams each and we had to determine the optical reflectivity of the samples, the particle size distribution of the dust and some of the electrical properties,” Bilson said. “Morrison’s group determined some 67 elements in the dust and rock samples and they came to the conclusion that the samples were very similar to the salty crust on Earth, with some signs of significant differences in the volatile elements.”
This, along with other data, provided overwhelming evidence for the Giant Impact Hypothesis: the idea that the Moon is the result of a collision between the earth and another large extraterrestrial body billions of years ago.
Unlike Aldrin, who spoke often about their mission, and John Glenn, who continued public service in Congress, Armstrong avoided the public eye after the moon landing. He was professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati for a decade after his departure from NASA in 1971, and served on the boards of several companies. Late in 2010, he voiced concerns about the cancellation of NASA's moon landing program and the reorientation towards commercial space flight.
His death, at the age of 82, has spurred calls for memorials, including one to make the site of the moon landing a national monument. Apart from the fact that international treaties designate the moon as a neutral site, administration of such a park might prove complicated, to say the least.
Armstrong's funeral is Friday. Whatever comes of memorials or monuments, the words of Safire's long-ago eulogy seem more apt than ever:
"In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
"Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
"For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."
Perhaps the most enduring memorial to Armstrong will be a renewed spirit of exploration, a spark lit in the minds of young men and women inspired, as he was, by curiosity and a love of the unknown.
Reach Contributor Joe Peters here.