Neil Armstrong

First Person to Walk on the Moon

Image Courtesy NASA

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Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first person to land a lunar spacecraft and to walk on the moon.  In his launch from the Earth to the moon, Armstrong was joined by two other astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.  Armstrong was a humble hero and often redirected the spotlight to credit and thank, for this mission, the “hundreds of thousands of people” who were part of the team.  He conveyed that this team, including those behind the scenes, “who did their job a little bit better than they have to” collectively made this lunar mission a success.

 

Armstrong was born in Ohio in 1930.  At six years old, Armstrong flew in an airplane for the first time, which sparked his passion for aviation and flight.  He was a scout in the Boy Scouts of America and earned its highest rank of Eagle Scout.  On his 16th birthday, Armstrong became a licensed pilot.  The following year, he became a naval air cadet.

 

Armstrong pursued an aeronautical engineering degree at Purdue University.  While his college education was interrupted due to his military service in the Korean War, Armstrong completed his degree in 1955.  Armstrong later received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.  

 

Armstrong became a civilian research pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was later renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  Armstrong flew as a project pilot on many pioneering high speed aircraft.  He tested supersonic fighter jets.

 

In 1962, NASA selected the second group of astronauts for its space program and Armstrong was among them. Armstrong served as the command pilot for the 1966 Gemini 8 mission.  During this spaceflight, he performed the first successful docking of two space vehicles.  Armstrong encountered difficulties during this space mission, which he overcame with courage and skill.  After docking, a thruster on the Gemini spacecraft malfunctioned which sent it into an uncontrolled spin and forced them to separate the Gemini craft from the other space vehicle.  Armstrong persevered and regained control of the Gemini craft.  He returned to Earth in an emergency splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

 

In his second spaceflight, Armstrong was the mission commander for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing mission.  He flew with astronauts Aldrin and Collins.  On the 5th day of this space mission, while Collins remained in the Apollo capsule that circled the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin were in the lunar module that would land on the moon, named the “Eagle”.  In the Eagle lunar module, Armstrong and Aldrin began their descent to the moon.  During this flight, Armstrong again faced many challenges, but through his perseverance, courage and skill, he overcame them.  The module’s alarms were repeatedly set off and some of the alarms indicated that the computer was overloaded with too much data that it was unable to process.  Armstrong took manual control over the Eagle’s altitude.   Armstrong correctly predicted that the Eagle would land three miles farther than the planned landing site.  The Eagle’s computer was taking the module over an unsafe landing area that was covered with boulders.  Armstrong then took over manual control of the module’s descent, changed the Eagle’s orientation to slow its descent, and looked for smoother terrain to land on.  The fuel quantity warning light also came on when the Eagle was about 100 feet above the moon’s surface.  This warning indicated that Armstrong only had about 90 seconds of hover time left. With about one minute of fuel remaining, the Eagle was about 40 feet above the moon’s surface and the engine was kicking up lunar dust which made it hard for Armstrong to see.  Armstrong persevered and successfully landed the Eagle on the moon.  Just before his spacewalk on the moon, Armstong described that the moon’s surface appeared fine-grained, almost powdery.  Armstrong stepped off the lunar module and placed his foot on the moon’s surface, as he announced, “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”  Armstrong and Aldrin studied the moon’s surface, collected rocks, and conducted scientific experiments.  After almost a day, they blasted off and joined Collins in orbit around the moon.  The three astronauts then flew back to Earth together.

 

After the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong became the NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics.  He advanced scientific and technological research as a NASA administrator.

 

Armstrong received numerous awards.  Among them were the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor), the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and the Congressional Gold Medal.  He was inducted in the Aerospace Walk of Honor, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the International Air and Space Hall of Fame.  He was also decorated by 17 countries.

 

Although he had worldwide fame, Armstrong remained humble and instead, sought to raise his family simply and out of the limelight.  Armstrong described himself as just a “nerdy engineer” who “take[s] substantial pride in the accomplishments of [his] profession.  Science is what is; engineering is what can be.”  Armstrong’s son, Mark, echoed this sentiment and said that he wanted his father to be remembered as a “hard working nerdy engineer that … just got an opportunity and applied himself...  He always looked at all the sides of the situation and tried to do the right thing and I think if we all tried that, it would be a better world.”  His son further described that when his father “got back [from the Apollo 11 mission], he was the same man that he was before he left.  But I think the world wanted him to be different — and he and mom both felt that we should try to get back to the business of normal life.  They felt that was the best upbringing for my brother and I, and that would yield the best result.”

 

Consistent with this pursuit, Neil Armstrong became a college professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati in 1971.   A university employee remarked, “[h]e didn’t want accolades; he only wanted to teach. He really worked hard at just being a teacher.  He was a true servant of this profession.”  Armstrong embraced teaching and stated, “I love to teach.  I love the kids.”  In his speech at a university event, Armstrong said that he was more interested in the next exploration, more than the ones he’s been involved in and said, “where we are going is enormously more important than where we’ve been.”  

 

While Armstrong avoided the public eye, a student  remarked, “[f]or his students, he couldn’t have been more approachable … He was always willing to sit down with you and answer any questions.”  The student further described that, “what we saw was a man with an extraordinary ability to adapt and to learn with incredible speed.  Couple that with a sixth sense when it comes to timing in the face of escalating risks, and you have the right stuff to be Apollo 11’s commander … The man who walked on the moon also liked keeping his feet on the earth and his eyes to the sky.”

 

Armstrong’s family stated that they hope Armstrong’s remarkable life will “serve as an example, to young people around the world, to work hard to make their dreams come true, to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”  The family’s statement further said, “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.”

Video Courtesy NASA

Sources:

  • "Biography of Neil Armstrong" (2012) NASA 

  • "50 Years Ago: One Small Step, One Giant Leap " (2019) NASA

  • "Who Was Neil Armstrong?" (2012) NASA

  • "Farewell Neil Armstrong: UC's Most Famous, Humble Professor" UC Magazine, University of Cincinnati

  • "Memories of Neil Armstrong as a UC Professor: Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)" UC Magazine, University of Cincinnati

  • "Special Edition: Remembering Neil Armstrong" (November 2012) Ralph Spitzen, UC School of Aerospace Systems Newsletter, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Cincinnati

  • "Neil Armstrong: American Astronaut" (2020) Encyclopedia Britannica

  • "Purdue Remembers Neil Armstrong" (2012) Purdue University

  • "Armstrong Family Statement" Video (2012) Neil Armstrong & Purdue - Video Gallery, Purdue University

  • "Armstrong Vision 21" Video (1994) Neil Armstrong & Purdue - Video Gallery, Purdue University

  • "Neil Armstrong's Son Reflects on His Lunar Legacy" Video (2019) CBC News

  • "Iconic Neil Armstrong Personal Items on Display" (2020) San Diego Air and Space Museum Newsletter

  • "Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon" (2015) Universe Today

Images of Pillars of Creation, Future Mars Base, Curiosity Rover, Milky Way, Moon, and International Space Station are courtesy of NASA. Image of Earth's atmosphere courtesy of Science Museum of Exploration.