One of modern history’s most prominent figures was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio—a small city between Dayton and Toledo—on August 5, 1930. Neil Armstrong was the eldest child of a family that moved frequently, thanks to his father’s job as a state government auditor. He would go on to earn a pilot’s license before a driver’s license, become a decorated naval aviator, a talented engineer and gifted test pilot, and—of course—the very first human to step foot on the moon.
Armstrong caught the flying bug very early in life, having been taken to air shows and experiencing his first flight as a kid. As a teenager, he worked odd jobs to pay for his piloting lessons—he had his student flight certificate and had piloted his first solo flight before he even passed the test for his driver’s license. After graduating from high school, he went on to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, utilizing the Holloway Plan to pay for his education—as such, after two years of studies, he was ordered to Naval Air Station Pensacola to begin flight training.
Armstrong managed to qualify for carrier landing before he finished his eighteen-month training and was designated a fully qualified naval aviator just after his twentieth birthday. He was eventually assigned to Fighter Squadron 51 – the “Screaming Eagles” – and began flying F9F-2 Panther, making his first carrier landing aboard the USS Essex about six months later. Shortly afterward, the Essex—with the Screaming Eagles on board—was deployed to Korea. Armstrong flew seventy-eight missions over Korea between 1951 and 1952, receiving multiple awards for his service. In August of 1952, he left the Navy and entered the Naval Reserve at the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, a commission he maintained for several years after earning his degree at Purdue—graduating in 1955. While working toward his degree, Armstrong wrote and co-directed a musical and also played baritone in the Purdue All-American Marching Band.
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After earning his degree, Armstrong married Janet Elizabeth Shearon and then they headed out west for him to pursue a career as a test pilot. He was involved in a number of “incidents” during his time at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics High-Speed Flight Station at Edwards AFB (now known by the slightly-less-of-a-mouthful “NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center”): including an episode known as the “Nellis Affair,” which just makes May 21, 1962 just sounds like a day entirely governed by Murphy’s Law. In his role as a test pilot at Edwards, Neil Armstrong logged more than two-thousand hours of flight time and piloted over two-hundred different aircraft models. During the same period of time, in his personal life, he received a master’s degree from USC and he and his wife had three children, two sons and one daughter—their daughter, Karen, died when she was two-years-old of pneumonia, a complication of a malignant tumor in her brainstem.
It was both his prior service and one of those “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” moments that got his foot in the door for NASA’s Gemini program. Armstrong had been working on projects aimed at spaceflight for several years, starting in 1958 with the Air Force’s Man in Space Soonest program (which was then replaced with NASA’s Mercury program) and the X-20 Dyna-Soar project with Boeing and the Air Force. He sent in an application to NASA who was recruiting the second class of astronauts, but it arrived nearly a week after the deadline had passed. Luckily for Armstrong, a man with whom he had worked closely at Edwards saw the application and “slipped it into the pile before anyone noticed.” On September 13, 1962, Armstrong was officially offered a position among “the New Nine” in the NASA Astronaut Corps—having resigned his military commission two years prior, he was now one of the first two civilians accepted into the Astronaut Corps and would become the first American civilian in space.
Aboard Gemini 8, with David Scott, Neil Armstrong performed the first vehicle docking in space. Given the sheer number of incidents Armstrong experienced at Edwards AFB, maybe it was not such a surprise to him that Gemini 8 experienced the first in-flight emergency in space: with contact with the ground only intermittent, Armstrong and Scott responded as they were trained to respond, even though it meant cutting the mission short and scrapping what was supposed to be the second spacewalk. Later, because of the rotation of prime and back-up crews, Armstrong’s next assignment was as back-up for Gemini 11—astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon ended up flying that mission, while Armstrong filled the role of CAPCOM.
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As NASA moved from project Gemini and into the Apollo program, Armstrong was one of eighteen astronauts assembled to participate in lunar missions. As before, each member of the group was assigned—in a predetermined rotation schedule—to roles as both back-up and prime crew members for different missions. Armstrong was assigned as back-up to Apollo 9 and as prime to Apollo 11—at the time of the assignment, no one knew for sure which of the Apollo flights would actually land on the moon, let alone which one was to be first.
Clearly, Armstrong survived the close-call. Thank goodness.
In the course of training for the Apollo missions, the astronauts spent time at Langley AFB flying Lunar Landing Research Vehicles (LLRV) that simulated the lesser gravity of the moon. Armstrong had a near-miss in 1968, when during an LLRV training exercise, he started losing control of the vehicle. The LLRV banked dangerously and Armstrong managed to eject with just enough time for his parachute to properly open. Despite that experience, when the lunar module Eagle did touch down on the moon the following year, Armstrong maintained that the LLRV exercises were an absolutely indispensable part of the training process: he responded to questions about what landing on the moon was like with, “Like Langley.”
On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong—along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—sat atop a Saturn V rocket (oh, c’mon. If you’ve read my stuff before, you knew this video was going to be linked: it’s my faaavorite.) and began the journey that would be the first to put human beings on the surface of an entirely different heavenly body. Then, on July 20th, Armstrong and Aldrin boarded the lunar module—Eagle—, separated from the command and service module—Columbia—, and descended to the surface of the moon. Armstrong was the first to leave the lunar module for a few reasons; one reason being that NASA did not think Armstrong was too consumed with his ego about it and another being, simply, the way the lunar module door opened making egress easier from Armstrong’s position in the module.
Interestingly, there has been quite a bit of controversy about those first words Armstrong spoke as his boot settled onto the lunar surface. I suppose I understand the desire to make sure that such historic words are recorded accurately. On the other hand, I struggle with making a coherent order when going through a drive-thru, so that he could speak at all—knowing what a defining moment in history this was—seems miraculous to me, in and of itself, regardless of a maybe-but-maybe-not missing indefinite article.
Upon returning from the historic flight, Neil Armstrong announced that he would not fly into space again. In 1971, he resigned from NASA altogether and accepted a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Though he had only attained a master’s degree, he entered straight into a professorship—though, I think this is definitely one of those cases wherein the “x amount of education or equivalent experience in the field” definitely applies! He held the position of University Professor of Aerospace Engineering for eight years, resigning in 1979.
Aside from his teaching gig, his life after the Astronaut Corps stayed quite full. He served on two NASA accident investigative panels—one for Apollo 13 and one for the Challenger disaster. He was hired on as a spokesperson from Chrysler, General Time Corporation, and the Bankers Association of America and served on the board of directors of a number of companies, including Learjet, Marathon Oil, and United Airlines, among others. He also participated in an expedition to the North Pole in 1985 with other “great explorers.”
Armstrong, by and large, remained out of the spotlight. Unlike other veteran astronauts, he refused offers to jump into politics. Aside from different tours, speaking engagements, and golf tournaments, he was largely content to work his farm in Lebanon, Ohio. When he discovered that things he had autographed were being sold for large sums of money—enough that forgeries were floating about—he began refusing autographs. He even got into a legal dispute with his barber, who had sold some of his cut hair.
In the summer of 2012, Armstrong underwent a coronary bypass—though he initially seemed to be recovering well, he developed complications and died a little over two weeks later, on August 25th. A memorial was held for the hero—the first man on the moon—at Washington National Cathedral; a fitting choice given the Cathedral’s Space Window which contains a sliver of moon rock amid the stained-glass depiction of the Apollo 11 mission. The next day, during a burial-at-sea ceremony, his ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.
So, today, on what would be his eighty-seventh birthday, let’s take a few minutes to honor the man often described as a “reluctant hero.” A veteran who was noted for his integrity, a remarkable pilot who often survived just by the skin of his teeth, a gifted engineer, a brave and level headed pioneer in space exploration, the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and the Congressional Gold Medal—Neil Armstrong’s legacy is monumental. Happy Birthday, Mr. Armstrong. May your spirit continue to inspire and may the universe embrace your energy.
“Somewhere there’s music/How faint the tune/Somewhere there’s heaven/How high the moon.”