Neil Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012)
One famous anecdote tells of how he joined University of Cincinnati (Ohio) as a professor and students lined outside his room to just get a glimpse of him. When the doors were closed, they stood one on top of the other as a human pyramid to catch sight of him through the glass ventilators high above.
Rock star? Movie actor? You’re not even close. “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer….” Thus did one of the world’s greatest heroes describe himself.
Neil Armstrong, who died last Saturday at the age of 82, was the first man to walk on the moon. On July 25, 1969, out of a global population of 3.63 billion people, 450 million people listened to or watched him step foot on the moon.
You probably don’t know much about him because unlike most superstars of today, he was an exceptionally modest man.
When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was deciding who was going to be the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong was chosen for two main reasons: 1) he was the greatest living test pilot-engineer and 2) he did not have a big ego.
Born in Ohio, Armstrong took his first airplane flight at the age of 6 and had his flight certificate at the age of 16, before he even had his driver’s license. Through a plan where he could study aeronautical engineering in return for three years’ service in the US Navy, Armstrong received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University. He later obtained his master’s in aerospace engineering. He received many medals for his naval service, which took place during the Korean War. It was once said of him: “He flies an airplane like he’s wearing it.” Armstrong's ability to memorize the smallest engineering detail and to be able to explain, in even more detail, the intricate working of any aircraft he tested made him the outstanding test pilot of his generation. To this day, within military aviation, he is still famous for his "steel trap" mind and his unflappable demeanor.
After completing his naval service and graduating from college, Armstrong became an experimental research test pilot at the legendary Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he tested more than 50 different aircraft including chase planes, bombers, and the X-15 rocket plane, which he took above 207,000 feet at Mach 5.74 speeds.
Originally selected as a civilian for the US Air Force’s Man in Space Soonest program, Armstrong was invited to join the second group of Gemini astronauts for the NASA Astronaut Corps. The fact that Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon was pure chance. The Apollo programme was, in his own words, “very fluid”. He had been the back-up captain for Apollo 8, but when its first choice crew blasted off, “I found myself out of a job. A few days later the boss called and asked if I would take three flights down the road – Apollo 11.” What that mission might entail he did not know; no one did, not even the meticulous planners at Nasa. “There was no way we could predict what each of the flights was going to do,” Armstrong said in 2011. “It [Apollo 11] was going to depend on the accomplishments of the flight before. But [Apollo] 8 worked well. [Apollo] 9 worked well. 10 did far better than expected – it took a lunar module around the Moon. A month before the launch of Apollo 11 we decided that we were confident enough to try an attempt on a descent to the surface.
So on July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off in Apollo 11 for the Moon. They rode the giant Saturn V into orbit, flawlessly connected their capsule to the lunar lander, and rocketed out of Earth’s orbit heading for the moon. Arriving in orbit around the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin in the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) detached from Collins in the Apollo capsule and began the nerve-wracking descent towards the moon's surface.
Armstrong flew the LEM while Aldrin manned the primitive flight computer. As Buzz Aldrin explained, "At 500 feet the commander [Armstrong] took over manual control to get a feel for what the spacecraft was like before going for the landing." Armstrong made a few last-second maneuvers to avoid some dangerous rocks and successfully landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. All the hard years of training, education, and experience had paid off; Armstrong had made it look easy.
And, afterwards, what did Armstrong do? He left the NASA program and taught aerospace engineering. He also served on commissions that investigated space disasters and testified before Congress in favor of funding space programs but otherwise led a quiet life.
Armstrong's family statement paid him the following tribute: "For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."
I have to apologize to you: This article just gives the facts of Armstrong’s life; there is simply no room to tell you about how many times he risked his life flying planes and how incredibly brave he was. I strongly recommend that you read about more about him in various obituaries on the internet and that you watch The Right Stuff, an amazing film about the test pilots at Edwards AFB and the first American Mercury astronauts before Armstrong accomplished his deeds. The film is available on YouTube with English language subtitles).