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Remembering Neil Armstrong

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Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong inside the Lunar Module during the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. NASA photo.

I first heard the sad news while having a late lunch with friends at a seafood restaurant on the water in Annapolis, Maryland. Neil Armstrong passed away today, August 25, 2012, from complications resulting from heart bypass surgery. He was 82 years old. We will all miss him, not just because he was the first human being in the history of the world to set foot on another body in the Solar System, but perhaps especially because of the honor and dignity with which he lived his life as that first Moon walker. He sought neither fame nor riches, and he was always more comfortable with a small group of friends rather than the limelight before millions. When he might have done anything he wished after his completion of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission, Armstrong chose to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Imagine having the first person to walk on the Moon as your engineering professor!

Neil Alden Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930, on his grandparents’ farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio. His parents ­were Stephen and Viola Armstrong. Because Stephen Armstrong was an auditor for the state of Ohio, Neil grew up in sev­eral Ohio communities, including Warren, Jefferson, Ravenna, St. Marys, and Upper Sandusky, before the family settled in Wapakoneta. He developed an interest in flying at age 2 when his father took him to the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. His interest intensified when he had his first air­plane ­ride in a Ford ­Tri-­Motor, a “Tin Goose,” in Warren, Ohio, at age 6. At age 15 Armstrong began learning to fly at an airport near Wapakoneta, working at various jobs to earn the money for his lessons. By age 16 he had his student pilot’s license; all before he could drive a car or had a high school diploma.

He then went to Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering, but in 1949 he went on active duty with the Navy, eventually becoming an aviator. In 1950 he was sent to Korea, where he flew 78 combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS Essex.

After mustering out of the Navy in 1952, Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). His first assignment was at NACA’s Lewis Research Center near Cleveland, Ohio. For the next 17 years he worked as an engineer, pilot, astronaut, and administrator for NACA and its successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In the ­mid-­1950s Armstrong transferred to NASA’s Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, where he became a research pilot on many pioneering ­high-­speed ­aircraft—including the famous ­X-­15, which was capable of achieving a speed of 4,000 mph. He flew over 200 different models of aircraft, including jets, rockets, heli­cop­ters, and gliders. He also pursued graduate studies and received a M.S. degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.

Armstrong transferred to astronaut status in 1962, one of nine NASA astronauts in the second class to be chosen. On March 16, 1966, Armstrong flew his first space mission as commander of Gemini VIII with David Scott. During that mission Armstrong piloted the Gemini VIII spacecraft to a successful docking with an Agena target spacecraft already in orbit. Although the docking went smoothly and the two craft orbited together, they began to pitch and roll wildly. Armstrong was able to undock the Gemini and used the RCS system to regain control of his craft, but the astronauts had to make an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean.

On Apollo 11, Armstrong flew with Michael Collins and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Armstrong completed the first Moon landing on July 20, 1969. As commander of Apollo 11, Armstrong piloted the lunar module to a safe landing on the Moon’s surface. On 20 July 1969, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the Moon and made his famous statement, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent about two and ­one-­half hours walking on the Moon collecting samples, doing experiments, and taking photographs. On July 24,1969, the module carry­ing the three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. ­They ­were picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.

No question, the Moon landing unified a nation divided by political, social, racial, and economic tensions for a brief moment in the summer of 1969. Virtually everyone old enough recalls where they were when Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface and Neil Armstrong said his immortal words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” Millions, myself included, identified with Neil Armstrong as he reached the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon. One seven-year-old boy from San Juan, Puerto Rico, said of the first Moon landing: “I kept racing between the TV and the balcony and looking at the Moon to see if I could see them on the Moon”. His experiences proved typical; as a fifteen-year-old I sat with friends on the hood of a car on the night of July 20, 1969, looking at the Moon and listening to the astronauts on it. “One small step,” hardly; Neil Armstrong nailed it with the second phrase of his famous statement, “one giant leap for mankind”.

Since that euphoric event a lot has passed, the world has changed, and the future does not seem to hold quite the same possibilities as it once did. Yet, Neil Armstrong captured that sense of hopefulness so well until his last breath. He was an American hero, no doubt, but he was more. He lived a life of quiet grace, rarely embroiling himself in the day-to-day fights we see all around us even as he exemplified a unique merger of the “Right Stuff” with the self-reflection of a poet. Landing on the Moon was singular accomplishment, but not one to be remembered as an accomplishment of Neil Armstrong, as he so often said. It was the result of the labor of hundreds of thousands and the accomplishment of generation of humanity. Armstrong always recognized the honor he received from humanity in being allowed to participate in Apollo 11.

Armstrong would have agreed with legendary journalist Walter Cronkite, about the experience of reaching the Moon. “Yes, indeed, we are the lucky generation,” Cronkite wrote. In this era we “first broke our earthly bonds and ventured into space. From our descendants’ perches on other planets or distant space cities, they will look back at our achievement with wonder at our courage and audacity and with appreciation at our accomplishments, which assured the future in which they live.” When those descendents do look back on that era when humanity first journeyed beyond Earth, I’m sure they will also remember the contributions of an unassuming engineer and pilot from Ohio in advancing the exploration of the cosmos. The most fitting tribute I can offer at this time of recollection was the same said on more than one occasion in the space program: “Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.”


Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

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23 thoughts on “Remembering Neil Armstrong

  1. I’m a 55 year old American male. I still get choked up when I hear or even read what Neil said upon landing on the Moon! Wish I could have shook his hand. Thanks for writing this obit…

  2. A true American Hero passes into history; but, history lives on in our hearts and minds. Venture forth America making “One small step(s)and One (many) Giant Step for (all) Mankind!” Thanks for being an inspiration to thousands! Rest In Peace

  3. The American Hero Neil Amstrong’s name will be remembered as long as the Human race exist….
    The fact that he had survived 78 combat missions clearly indicates that HE WAS BLESSED BY GOD….

  4. I did have the chance to shake hands with Mr. Armstrong. On the 10th anniversary of the Moon landing in Washington, I requested that he sign the title page of the book, First On The Moon. He graciously did using my pen. He took slow deliberate strokes as he signed his name. Not the fast scribble that most people would use. He was most gracious about it. The book and the pen that he and the rest of the crew used to sign the book are my most prized possessions.

  5. Everyone be sure to give a wink to the moon. A classy request, it seems, of his family of a way to mark a passing of e hero of not just U.S.A. , but humanity !

  6. Pingback: Godspeed, Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) | Roger Launius's Blog

  7. I was lucky to be a 25-yr old engineer on the Apollo 11 launch team at KSC, so Mr. Armstrong’s passing is of special significance to me. I also worked on Gemini 8 at McDonnell.

    In the interests of accuracy, Armstrong did not use Gemini 8’s retro rockets to stabilize the craft, he used the RCS thrusters which were intended to control the spacecraft during re-entry. After the craft was stable, he used the retros to initiate re-entry.

  8. Pingback: Roger Launius Reflects on the Pioneering Life of Astronaut Neil Armstrong | Around The Mall

  9. Those of us who witnessed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on July 20, 1969 will always remember the awe and wonder of this historic moment. For our family it was especially meaningful and close-to-home, as my father was a member of the Grumman team that built the Lunar Module (he served as a propulsion engineer on the descent engine). I can recall him having to be at Grumman for the landing on that Sunday, and after the Eagle touched down he returned home in the early evening where all of us watched the first walk on T.V. As a 12-year-old at the time this was the BIGGEST event of my life, and in the years since the excitement of that night has never dissipated: in fact, it inspired a lifelong hobby as a collector and reader of many of the historical accounts of and tributes to the Apollo moon missions. I recall, too, attending the 20th anniversary celebration of the first landing, which took place on the steps of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1989. The members of the Apollo 11 crew were there (along with President Bush and Vice President Quayle), and I still remember Neil referring to the trip as their “summer vacation.” I always smile when I think about this.

    Neil Armstrong–a renaissance man and true American hero who, in his own humble way, simply did his job and made a “dent in the universe” (quite literally!). He and the thousands of men and women who worked on Project Apollo in the 1960s should all be remembered and honored on this occasion, as the first landing and moon walk will, forever, mark the genesis of a new age: The beginning of mankind’s quest to break the bonds of earth and explore new worlds.

  10. un grande uomo, un grande eroe oggi l’umanità ha perso uno dei suoi più grandi personaggi. ma la sua immagine sarà stampata per sempre nella storia umana.

    CIAO Armstrong

  11. Thanks for this warm tribute. We who grew up with the manned space program feel a particular and very painful loss with the passing of Neil Armstrong. I feel as though part of my childhood dream died, too.
    Is anyone planning to place flowers under the Apollo 11 command module?

  12. I think these 3 man where one of the bravest of their time.
    The determination of Neil to put the lunar module on the moon under doubtful circumstances proves what a great men he was.
    Even now I was born in 63 I still look at the existing movies with a heart full of respect. RIP Neil I will always remember you for what you did.

  13. I am a 50 year old Australian who was lucky enough to have seen the moon landing on our family TV. That moment inspired an 8 year old boy to have a lifelong interest in space flight and astrometry. My father took me up to the roof of our Sydney home to see the Apollo space craft pass overhead a moment I will never forget. Neil Armstrong is a true hero who will be forever remembered. I am saddened by his passing. One small step for a man made by a giant of a man for all mankind.

  14. Roger – Thanks for a great tribute! You captured the essence of Neil Armstrong very well.

    Both the earth, and the moon, are better places for having Neil Armstrong grace them with his presence…

  15. The ultimate ‘steely eyed missile man’ Neil Armstrong had nerves of steel which allowed him to calmly manage dangerous situations in the X15, LLRV, Gemini 8 and on the way down to Tranquility base.
    A ‘reluctant hero’, he always diverted attention away from himself and praised the collective effort of 400 000 people who rose to President Kennedy’s challenge to ‘land a man on the moon and bring him back safely to earth’.
    However, on the rare occasions that he did make a public appearance he always delivered an intelligent, intersting talk laced with humour.
    Godspeed Neil Armstrong

  16. A great American, who served his country courageously but with characteristic Midwestern modesty. His words indeed captured a literal high point in human history. I and others who were serving with the U.S. Consulate General in Dacca, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)were so fortunate to have the opportunity to meet him and his Apollo 11 colleagues when they visited Dacca in fall of 1969 on their round-the-world tour. When I listened to the landing via my Zenith Transoceanic radio and exulted in this amazing event it was beyond belief I would meet him – and shake his hand – a few months later in Dacca. What a thrill! They were pioneers and heroes, and he was their commander. As his family so movingly suggested, when we look at the moon we can wink at it, and think of Neil Armstrong. Thank you for your stirring remembrance of such a fine man.

  17. Great story on a great man of our time. With the “one small step” i think Prof. Armstrong was thinking of the future. Just wishing he had continued on with the Apollo vegetarian diet, he might still be with us.

  18. Pingback: That was the Year That Was…2012 in Air and Space | AirSpace

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