Late great engineers: Neil Armstrong – reluctant American hero

Destined to be remembered as the first human to walk on the Moon, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong was also an aeronautical engineer, test pilot and college professor. Written by Nick Smith. 

Neil Armstrong
Photograph of Armstrong from the Apollo 11 mission taken inside the Lunar Module whilst it rested on the lunar surface. Image: NASA

In its coverage of the arrival of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon, the New York Times of 21st July 1969 opted not for a tone of triumph, but for one of dignified statement of fact. The editors, perhaps sensing that this was the one story that needed no journalistic embellishment, calmly stated that “men have landed and walked on the moon.” The newspaper referred to the mission’s civilian commander simply as Mr Armstrong. If you cast your eye to the top of that news column, you’ll see that the writer’s name is John Noble Wilford, whose copy lives up to his middle name. The more you strip this story to its bare bones, the less linguistic fanfare deployed, the fewer adjectives used, the more noble the story becomes.

This almost muted announcement is strangely in keeping with the character of the mission commander Neil Armstrong, described in a statement released by his family on his death in 2012 as a ‘reluctant American hero’. He was the man who admitted he may have fluffed his lines on stepping out of the Lunar Module and who modestly hoped that history would forgive him the error by retrospectively inserting the word ‘a’ into his statement – “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – so that it would make sense. The world reacted by saying that Armstrong, that most famous of all-American super-heroes, couldn’t have made such a mistake: there had been a crackle of static in the audio transmission, his speech patterns had created an unfortunate elision, we weren’t listening properly. But Armstrong, a quiet and humble man (often mistaken for a recluse), is quoted in James R Hansen’s biography of the astronaut First Man as admitting to his human fallibility, while justifying the slip in saying: “I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and certainly the ‘a’ was intended.” We now put the ‘a’ in square brackets. We all know what he meant. He was also a man that wanted to be judged on his life’s work, not one moment of ‘fireworks.’

Armstrong’s life began in the early days of the Great Depression in small-town America. Born on 5th August 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, his upbringing was both modest and unconventional, living in 16 cities by the time he was in his early teens. His first brush with aviation was at the age of two, when his father took him to the Cleveland Air Races, and his first flight was in a Ford Trimotor (‘Tin Goose’) at the age of five or six. A much-repeated item of trivia about Armstrong is that he learned to fly before he could drive, receiving his student fight certificate on his sixteenth birthday. A year later he was studying aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, Indiana, which he attended in preference Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he had also been accepted. His studies were interrupted by the Korean War in which he flew 78 missions and was awarded three Air Medals. After the war, by 1955 he had completed his degree, upon which he became a civilian research pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), that was to become in 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA – where he logged more than a thousand hours as a test pilot on various supersonic fighters as well as the X-15 rocket plane.

Neil Armstrong
Armstrong next to the X-15 rocket-powered aircraft after a research flight. He was one of only 12 pilots to fly the experimental aircraft

Having been ineligible for the first US human spaceflight programme Project Mercury (due to his civilian status), Armstrong had to wait until 1962 to apply to become an astronaut on Project Gemini, submitting his application on 4th June and missing the deadline by several days. It was only the intervention of flight simulation expert Dick Day, who saw Armstrong’s application and slipped it into the pile unnoticed, that ensured that that Armstrong would become one of the ‘new nine’ NASA Astronaut Corps, of which only two were civilians, the other being Elliot See. It was to be Armstrong and See that would form the backup crew for Gemini 5 (supporting the main crew of Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad). But it wasn’t until the Gemini 8 mission of 1966 that Armstrong became NASA’s first civilian to fly in space. Although the mission was not successful in all its objectives, Armstrong was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal along with a pay rise taking his salary $21,653, making him the highest paid astronaut.

I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work
Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

On 23rd December 1968, while Apollo 8 was orbiting the Moon, Armstrong was offered the command of Apollo 11, which was to be the astronaut’s second and last flight into space. With the crew comprising Edwin E Aldrin in the post of Lunar Module Pilot and Michael Collins as Command Module Pilot, Apollo 11 set off for the Moon on 16th July 1969, arriving four days later, with the Eagle lunar module manually guided by Armstrong to touch down in the Sea of Tranquillity. At 10:56 pm EDT, Armstrong emerged from the craft’s hatch and uttered that famous sentence to a billion people listening 238,855 miles away on Earth. Days later, having splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, the crew of Apollo 11 could claim to have successfully completed the mission’s primary objective of performing a manned lunar landing and safe return, paving the way for the Apollo missions to follow.

HOW THE ENGINEER REPORTED ON THE LUNAR LANDINGS

After the global media circus that went the Apollo 11 celebrations had subsided, Armstrong announced that he would make no further space flights, and by 1971 had retired from NASA completely. While other former astronauts converted their highly visible public profiles into careers in business or politics, or as authors and artists, Armstrong seemed content to return to the relative anonymity of academic life, taking up a teaching post at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Such was his modesty that one of his concerns on joining the aerospace department of the faculty was that he didn’t cause offence to the other professors in qualifying for his role with what was effectively a master’s ‘by publication’ rather than a research thesis (having been granted the degree on the basis of his report on aspects of Apollo 11, rather than completion of his research into the simulation of hypersonic flight.) Armstrong remained at the university until 1980, teaching aircraft design and experimental flight mechanics. He was considered a good teacher and a tough grader.

Neil Armstrong
Armstrong trains in the lunar module simulator at Kennedy Space Center on June 19, 1969. Image: NASA

Following his resignation, Armstrong gravitated towards the world of business, serving on the board of directors of several businesses (including chairing the technical committee at Gates Learjet), as well as on the Rogers Commission (at the invitation of President Ronald Reagan) that had been established to investigate the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that killed all seven crew members on board. As vice chairman of the commission his influence was such that he was able to restrict the eventual findings to a total of merely nine, in response to his conviction that the more recommendations that were put forward the less likely they were to be acted upon. Following the second tragedy in the space shuttle program, in 2003 Armstrong attended the memorial for victims of the Columbia disaster at the invitation of President George W Bush.

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Because Armstrong had a reputation for avoiding the media limelight, he is often portrayed as reclusive. But, according to fellow astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, this portrayal is not accurate: “He was a humble person, and that’s the way he remained after his lunar flight, as well as before.” Michael Collins wrote of his Apollo 11 crewmate that in rusticating himself to a dairy farm in Cincinnati and becoming a college professor, Armstrong had “retreated to his castle and pulled up the drawbridge”, a comment that his commander found ‘amusing.’ Armstrong was also capable of being amusing: having arrived at the North Pole with Sir Edmund Hilary on a celebrity explorers cruise-style expedition, the former astronaut expressed his pleasure at seeing the pole at such close quarters, as he’d only ever seen it from the Moon. Typical of his low-profile approach to life, no media had been informed of an expedition that Armstrong regarded as private travel.

Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, died on 25th August 2012. President Barack Obama led the tributes to a modest teacher of engineering who was also a pioneering astronaut-explorer. Obama said that as one of the greatest of American heroes, Armstrong had given to the world “a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”