Sunday, July 20, 2014
Remembering Neil Armstrong and July 20, 1969
Today is the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping on the Moon. That he was the first man to do so hardly needs to be mentioned—the act made him one of the most famous men of the 20th century, a distinction that he carried with enormous grace. Like most people, I always admired Armstrong as much for the dignity he showed afterward as for the feat itself. He never sold out or cheapened his accomplishment. When he died two years ago I wrote this obituary, which appeared in the Sun-Times on Aug. 25, 2012:
He was the first man to set foot on the moon, and he lived the rest of his life in such a manner as to never detract from that enormous accomplishment.
Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of Apollo 11’s “Eagle” lunar landing module and onto the powdery gray lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EST on July 20, 1969, to the amazement of a breathless world.
“That’s one small step for [a] man,” he said, famously, the “a” dropping out in the quarter-million mile transmission. “One giant leap for mankind.”
For the next 43 years, until his death Saturday at 82 after complications from surgery to repair a blocked artery, Armstrong conducted himself as a hero should — modest, self-effacing, neither capitalizing on his global fame nor seeking a return to the spotlight.
That was not only appreciated, it was apt, because Armstrong’s modest demeanor was what caused NASA administrators to pick him for the honor in the first place, selecting him to achieve the capstone of the United States’ epic quest, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
In a statement, his family described Armstrong as “a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”
Neil Alden Armstrong was born on Aug. 5, 1930, in Wapakoneta, a small town in Western Ohio, 60 miles from the hometown of the Wright Brothers, who were his boyhood heroes. Armstrong received his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday, before he learned to drive, paying for flight lessons with his own money from after-school jobs, and became a naval air cadet the next year.
He studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue — he always described himself as a “nerdy engineer” — but left college to fight in the Korean War. The youngest fighter pilot in his squadron, he flew 78 combat missions, was shot down once and decorated three times.
After the war, he finished at Purdue and got his masters degree at the University of Southern California. He joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, becoming a research pilot at Edwards Air Force base, flying hundreds of different aircraft.
Armstrong retired from the Navy in 1960 and joined the space program in 1962, part of the second class of astronauts. He commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, conducting the first docking of two spacecraft in history, connecting with the Agena spacecraft.
“Flight we are docked,” Armstrong radioed back. “It’s really a smoothie.” The rest of the flight wasn’t — 30 minutes after docking, a malfunctioning thruster caused the joined spacecraft to spin wildly, required the mission to be aborted and an emergency landing in the Pacific.
NASA officials, looking for a cool head for the first risky moon mission, remembered Armstrong’s performance under pressure with Gemini 8. He was made commander of Apollo 11, where he was joined by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, who stayed in the command module Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface.
Armstrong needed his trademark calm during the Eagle’s landing, when a balky computer threatened to put the spidery vehicle into a field of boulders — he switched to manual control, reading out the distance to the uprushing moon, flew past the boulder field and landed softly in a cloud of dust with less than a minute’s worth of fuel remaining in the landing tanks.
“Houston,” he said. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
NASA always said that Armstrong was selected to go out first because his seat was closest to the hatch. But years later, officials admitted that it was his self-effacing demeanor — Aldrin had lobbied for the honor — that caused him to be selected.
Armstrong spent less than three hours on the moon. He collected rock samples and took photographs — most of them, so he only appears in a few. Armstrong never flew into space again.
The rest of his life was mostly out of the public eye — Aldrin described him as one of the quietest men he had ever met.
“On behalf of the Aldrin family we extend our deepest condolences to Carol & the entire Armstrong family on Neil’s passing. He will be missed,” Aldrin said via Twitter.
Armstrong taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati and served on corporate boards.
He did make several rare appearances — in 2010, decrying a NASA budget that shed its human space flight.
“It has been painful to watch,” he testified to Congress. “I believe the president has been poorly advised.”
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal. More than a dozen public schools are named in his honor.
Armstrong was living in Cincinnati at the time of his death. He was married in 1956 and divorced his first wife, Janet, in 1994, later marrying Carol Held Knight. Survivors include his two sons from his first marriage, Alan and Mark. A daughter, Karen, died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 2 in 1962.
His family’s statement requested that those wishing to honor Armstrong, “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.”