Neil Alden Armstrong: August 5, 1930–August 25, 2012


Neil Alden Armstrong was an American astronaut and aeronautical engineer who became the first person to walk on the Moon in 1969. He was also a naval aviator, test pilot and university professor.

Armstrong was born and raised in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He entered Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering with the U.S. Navy paying his tuition under the Holloway Plan. He became a midshipman in 1949 and a naval aviator the following year. He saw action in the Korean War, flying the Grumman F9F Panther from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. After the war, he completed his bachelor’s degree at Purdue and became a test pilot at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High-Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He was the project pilot on Century Series fighters and flew the North American X-15 seven times. He was also a participant in the U.S. Air Force’s Man in Space Soonest and X-20 Dyna-Soar human spaceflight programs.

Armstrong joined the NASA Astronaut Corps in the Second Group, which was selected in 1962. He made his first spaceflight as command pilot of Gemini 8 in March 1966, becoming NASA’s first civilian astronaut to fly in space. During this mission with pilot David Scott, he performed the first docking of two spacecraft; however, the mission was aborted after Armstrong used some of his re-entry control fuel to stabilize a dangerous roll caused by a stuck thruster. During his training for Armstrong’s second and last spaceflight as commander of Apollo 11, he had to eject from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle moments before a crash.

On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LM) pilot Buzz Aldrin became the first people to land on the Moon, and the next day they spent two and a half hours outside the Lunar Module Eagle spacecraft while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the Apollo Command Module Columbia. When Armstrong first stepped onto the lunar surface, he famously said: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was broadcast live to an estimated 530 million viewers worldwide. The success of the Apollo 11 mission was a major U.S. victory in the Space Race. It fulfilled the national goal proposed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of that decade. Along with Collins and Aldrin, Armstrong was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon and received the 1969 Collier Trophy. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter presented him with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1979. Along with his former crew mates, he also received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

Armstrong was born near Wapakoneta, Ohio on August 5, 1930; the son of Viola Louise (née Engel) and Stephen Koenig Armstrong. He was of German, English, Scots-Irish and Scottish descent. He had a younger sister, June, and a younger brother, Dean. His father was an auditor for the Ohio state government and the family moved around the state repeatedly, living in 16 towns over the next 14 years.

Armstrong’s love for flying grew during this time. Starting at the age of two when his father took him to the Cleveland Air Races. When he was five or six years old, he experienced his first airplane flight in Warren, Ohio, when he and his father took a ride in a Ford Trimotor (also known as the “Tin Goose”).

The family’s last move in 1944 took them back to Wapakoneta, where Armstrong attended Blume High School and took flying lessons at the Wapakoneta Airfield. He earned a student flight certificate on his 16th birthday, then soloed in August, all before acquiring his driver’s license. He was also an active Boy Scout earning the rank of Eagle Scout. As an adult, he was recognized by the Scouts with their Distinguished Eagle Scout Award and Silver Buffalo Award. While flying toward the Moon on July 18, 1969, he sent his regards to attendees at the National Scout Jamboree in Idaho. Among the few personal items he carried with him to the Moon and back was a World Scout Badge.

In 1947 at age 17, Armstrong began studying aeronautical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana where he was only the second person in his family to attend college. Armstrong was also accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but he resolved instead to attend Purdue after watching a football game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Ohio Stadium in 1945.

His college tuition was paid for under the Holloway Plan which required successful applicants to commit to two years of study, followed by two years of flight training and one year of service as an aviator in the U.S. Navy, then completion of the final two years of their bachelor’s degree. Armstrong did not take courses in naval science, nor did he join the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps.

Armstrong’s call-up from the Navy came on January 26, 1949. After passing the medical examinations, he became a midshipman on February 24, 1949. His flight training was conducted in a North American SNJ trainer, in which he soloed on September 9, 1949. On March 2, 1950, he made his first aircraft carrier landing on the USS Cabot, an achievement he considered comparable to his first solo flight.

Armstrong was assigned to Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron 7 (FASRON 7) at NAS San Diego. He was promoted to ensign on June 5, 1951, and made his first jet carrier landing on the USS Essex two days later..

On August 29, 1951, Armstrong saw action in the Korean War as an escort for a photo reconnaissance plane over Songjin. Five days later, on September 3, he flew armed reconnaissance over the primary transportation and storage facilities south of the village of Majon-ni, west of Wonsan. According to Armstrong, he was making a low bombing run at 350 mph when 6 feet of his wing was torn off after it collided with a cable that was strung across the hills as a booby trap.

Armstrong flew the plane back to friendly territory, but due to the loss of the aileron, ejection was his only safe option. He intended to eject over water and await rescue by Navy helicopters, but his parachute was blown back over land. A jeep driven by a roommate from flight school picked him up.

Armstrong flew 78 missions over Korea for a total of 121 hours in the air, a third of them in January 1952, with the final mission on March 5, 1952. Armstrong received the Air Medal for 20 combat missions, two Gold Stars for the next 40, the Korean Service Medal and Engagement Star, the National Defense Service Medal and the United Nations Korea Medal.

He was released from active duty on August 23, 1952. He remained in the reserve for eight years, before resigning his commission on October 21, 1960.

After his service with the Navy, Armstrong returned to Purdue. There he pledged to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and lived in its fraternity house. He wrote and co-directed two musicals as part of the all-student revue.

While at Purdue, Armstrong met Janet Elizabeth Shearon, who was majoring in home economics at a party hosted by Alpha Chi Omega. According to the couple, there was no real courtship and neither could remember the exact circumstances of their engagement. However, they were married on January 28, 1956, at the Congregational Church in Wilmette, Illinois.

Following his graduation from Purdue, Armstrong became an experimental research test pilot. He applied at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High-Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base. Armstrong served as project pilot on Century Series fighters, including the North American F-100 Super Sabre A and C variants, the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the Republic F-105 Thunderchief and the Convair F-106 Delta Dart. He also flew the Douglas DC-3, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, North American F-86 Sabre, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Douglas F5D-1 Skylancer, Boeing B-29 Superfortress, Boeing B-47 Stratojet and Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. His first flight in a rocket-powered aircraft was on August 15, 1957, in the Bell X-1B, to an altitude of 11.4 miles

He became an employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) when it was established on October 1, 1958.

In June 1958, Armstrong was selected for the U.S. Air Force’s Man in Space Soonest program, but the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) canceled its funding on August 1, 1958, and on November 5, 1958, it was superseded by Project Mercury, a civilian project run by NASA.

NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations, Deke Slayton, called Armstrong on September 13, 1962, and asked whether he would be interested in joining the NASA Astronaut Corps as part of what the press dubbed “the New Nine.” Without hesitation, Armstrong said yes.

On February 8, 1965, Armstrong and Elliot See were picked as the backup crew for Gemini 5, with Armstrong as commander, supporting the prime crew of Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad. The mission’s purpose was to practice space rendezvous and to develop procedures and equipment for a seven-day flight, all of which would be required for a mission to the Moon.The mission was generally successful, despite a problem with the fuel cells that prevented a rendezvous.

Slayton offered him the post of commander of Apollo 11 on December 23, 1968. a March 1969 meeting among Slayton, George Low, Bob Gilruth, and Kraft determined that Armstrong would be the first person on the Moon, in part because NASA management saw him as a person who did not have a large ego.

A Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, at 13:32:00 UTC (09:32:00 EDT local time). Armstrong’s wife Janet and two sons watched from a yacht moored on the Banana River. During the launch, Armstrong’s heart rate peaked at 110 beats per minute.

Apollo 11’s objective was to land safely on the Moon, rather than to touch down at a precise location. Three minutes into the lunar descent, Armstrong noted that craters were passing about two seconds too early, which meant the Lunar Module Eagle would probably touch down several miles beyond the planned landing zone. When Armstrong noticed they were heading toward a landing area that seemed unsafe, he took manual control of the LM and attempted to find a safer area.

The landing on the surface of the Moon occurred several seconds after 20:17:40 UTC on July 20, 1969. One of three 67-inch probes attached to three of the LM’s four legs made contact with the surface, a panel light in the LM illuminated, and Aldrin called out, “Contact light.” Armstrong shut the engine off and said, “Shutdown.” As the LM settled onto the surface, Aldrin said, “Okay, engine stop:” then they both called out some post-landing checklist items. After a 10-second pause, Duke acknowledged the landing with, “We copy you down, Eagle.” Armstrong confirmed the landing to Mission Control and the world with the words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

When he and Aldrin were ready to go outside, the Eagle was depressurized, the hatch was opened and Armstrong made his way down the ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, while standing on a Lunar Module landing pad, Armstrong said, “I’m going to step off the LM now.” He turned and set his left boot on the lunar surface at 02:56 UTC July 21, 1969, then said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” The exact time of Armstrong’s first step on the Moon is unclear. Armstrong prepared his famous epigram on his own. In a post-flight press conference, he said that he chose the words “just prior to leaving the LM.” About 19 minutes after Armstrong’s first step, Aldrin joined him on the surface, becoming the second human to walk on the Moon.

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When Armstrong made his proclamation, Voice of America was rebroadcast live by the BBC and many other stations worldwide. An estimated 530 million people viewed the event live, at that time 20 percent out of a world population of approximately 3.6 billion.

The three astronauts later successfully returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, to be picked up by the USS Hornet.

After being released from an 18-day quarantine to ensure that they had not picked up any infections or diseases from the Moon, the crew was feted across the United States and around the world as part of a 38-day “Giant Leap” tour. The tour began on August 13, when the three astronauts spoke and rode in ticker-tape parades in their honor in New York and Chicago, with an estimated six million attendees.

Shortly after Apollo 11, Armstrong stated that he did not plan to fly in space again. He accepted a teaching position in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. At Cincinnati, Armstrong was University Professor of Aerospace Engineering. He took a heavy teaching load, taught core classes, and created two graduate-level classes: aircraft design and experimental flight mechanics. He was considered a good teacher, and a tough grader.

After Armstrong retired from NASA in 1971, he acted as a spokesman for several businesses. The first company to successfully approach him was Chrysler, for whom he appeared in advertising starting in January 1979. He later acted as a spokesman for other American companies, including General Time Corporation and the Bankers Association of America. He acted as a spokesman only for American companies.

In addition to his duties as a spokesman, he also served on the board of directors of several companies. The first company board Armstrong joined was Gates Learjet, chairing their technical committee. Armstrong also became a member of Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company’s board in 1973.

Armstrong was elected as member into the National Academy of Engineering in 1978 for contributions to aerospace engineering, scientific knowledge, and exploration of the universe as an experimental test pilot and astronaut

In 1985, professional expedition leader Mike Dunn organized a trip to take men he deemed the “greatest explorers” to the North Pole. The group included Armstrong, Edmund Hillary, Hillary’s son Peter, Steve Fossett and Patrick Morrow. They arrived at the Pole on April 6, 1985. Armstrong said he was curious to see what it looked like from the ground, as he had seen it only from the Moon. He did not inform the media of the trip, preferring instead to keep it private.

Armstrong’s family described him as a “reluctant American hero”. He kept a low profile later in his life, leading to the belief that he was a recluse. Recalling Armstrong’s humility, John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, told CNN: “Armstrong didn’t feel that he should be out huckstering himself. He was a humble person, and that’s the way he remained after his lunar flight, as well as before.” Armstrong turned down most requests for interviews and public appearances.

Armstrong guarded the use of his name, image, and famous quote. When it was launched in 1981, MTV wanted to use his quote in its station identification, with the American flag replaced with the MTV logo, but he refused the use of his voice and likeness. He sued Hallmark Cards in 1994, when they used his name, and a recording of the “one small step” quote, in a Christmas ornament without his permission. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, which Armstrong donated to Purdue.

Some former astronauts, including Glenn and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, sought political careers after leaving NASA. Armstrong was approached by groups from both the Democrat and Republican parties but declined the offers. He supported states’ rights and opposed the U.S. acting as the “world’s policeman.”

Upon his return from the Moon, Armstrong gave a speech in front of the U.S. Congress in which he thanked them for giving him the opportunity to see some of the “grandest views of the Creator.”

Armstrong flew light aircraft for pleasure. He enjoyed gliders and before the Moon flight had earned a gold badge with two diamonds from the International Gliding Commission. He continued to fly engineless aircraft well into his 70s. In February 1991, he suffered a mild heart attack while skiing with friends at Aspen, Colorado.

Armstrong and his first wife, Janet, separated in 1990 and divorced in 1994 after 38 years of marriage. He met his second wife, Carol Held Knight at a golf tournament in 1992, when they were seated together at breakfast. She said little to Armstrong, but he called her two weeks later to ask what she was doing. She replied that she was cutting down a cherry tree, and he arrived at her house 35 minutes later to help. They were married in Ohio on June 12, 1994

Armstrong underwent bypass surgery at Mercy Faith–Fairfield Hospital in Cincinnati on August 7, 2012, to relieve coronary artery disease. Although he was reportedly recovering well, he later developed complications and died on August 25, aged 82.

Armstrong’s family released a statement describing him as a “reluctant American hero” who had served his nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut …

“While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves. 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.”

A tribute was held for Armstrong on September 13, at Washington National Cathedral, whose Space Window depicts the Apollo 11 mission and holds a sliver of Moon rock amid its stained-glass panels. In attendance were Armstrong’s fellow Apollo 11 crewmates, Collins and Aldrin; Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 mission commander and last man to walk on the Moon and former senator and astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

Armstrong chose a naval burial at sea.✪

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