AIN Blog: Godspeed, Neil Armstrong

 - August 29, 2012, 4:31 PM
Neil Armstrong (NASA)
Neil Armstrong was a reluctant hero, known for his desire to look toward the future rather than discuss his legendary past. (Photo: NASA)

The passing of Neil Armstrong comes as a shock. Surely the first human to set foot on another celestial body would never succumb to something as predictable and inevitable as mortality? But succumb he did, last Saturday (August 25), from complications following cardiovascular procedures. His 82 years of age are also a reminder of how long ago Apollo 11 placed Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, on July 20, 1969, while Michael Collins kept the ride home circling the block overhead.

This 14-year-old British lad watched on TV in the school physics lab as the events of that memorable day unfolded a quarter of a million miles away. In the Old Country, Brits tended to regard “The Americans” with boundless admiration for their forte at pulling off whatever they set their mind to, including World War II, but with a tinge of envy at the contrast between their rising fortunes and the withering Great British Empire. Neil Armstrong was the human at the tip of the spear symbolizing that Americans could achieve anything; the mighty Saturn V that carried him and his colleagues to the moon epitomized America’s staggering aerospace know-how; and then there was Mary Tyler Moore, on whom I had a big crush. Ten years later I was on a BA 747, heading west over the Atlantic to New York, with two suitcases and a few dollars in my pocket, emigrating to this fascinating land, powerhouse of the aviation universe. Thank you, Mr. Armstrong, for what you and the thousands of NASA people who sent you to the moon did to tell the world who America is.

Armstrong famously flubbed the brilliant one-liner as he stepped across the threshold from one world to another (“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”), but he did have a lot on his mind. Recognizing that the craft’s computers were struggling and the surface of the target landing area looked inhospitable, he had just piloted the lunar lander to a safe touchdown. Armstrong the test pilot, with the Mach 5+ North American X-15 among the entries in his logbook, had taken control and touched down with about 25 seconds of fuel remaining.

Each of the three Apollo 11 crewmembers dealt with post-lunar life differently. Armstrong was quiet about it but made his mark as a community leader in his home state of Ohio. He made his mark in business aviation circles with, for example, the altitude record he set in 1979 when he took a Learjet 28 to 51,000 feet and his subsequent role in the NBAA/GAMA “No Plane, No Gain” advocacy campaign. Aldrin, also well known in business aviation, has been more gregarious; and third man Collins wrote books, among them what is probably the best one by any astronaut, Carrying The Fire.

Armstrong had been an accomplished pilot for two decades before he set foot on the moon. He flew nearly 80 combat missions in Korea for the U.S. Navy in Grumman Panthers. He test flew the F-100 Super Sabre; Bell X-1B and X-5; Rogallo wings that led to the sport of hang gliding; NASA’s X-15, which he took to Mach 5.74 (just shy of 4,000 mph) and 207,500 feet; and he commanded Gemini 8, in which he was the first person to dock two spacecraft while in orbit.

His alma mater, Purdue, honored him with a memorial service on Monday, at which fellow Purdue graduate and astronaut Gregory Harbaugh noted that “Neil and all those guys set the tone, set the expectation.” Purdue acting president Timothy Sands noted that Armstrong never sought the spotlight: “He was a reluctant hero, and whenever he visited Purdue he was more interested in talking to the students about their exciting future and not his legendary past.”

After Apollo 11, Armstrong held the position of Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., responsible for the coordination and management of overall NASA research and technology work related to aeronautics.

Armstrong was professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati between 1971 and 1979. From 1982 to 1992 he was chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation, Inc., Charlottesville, Va.

In addition to his bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue, Armstrong also earned a master’s of science in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. He was a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the Royal Aeronautical Society; Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the International Astronautics Federation. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco. He served as a member of the National Commission on Space (1985-1986), as vice-chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (1986), and as chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the Peace Corps (1971-1973). Armstrong was decorated by 17 countries. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the Congressional Gold Medal; the Congressional Space Medal of Honor; the Explorers Club Medal; the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy; the NASA Distinguished Service Medal; the Harmon International Aviation Trophy; the Royal Geographic Society’s Gold Medal; the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s Gold Space Medal; the American Astronautical Society Flight Achievement Award; the Robert J. Collier Trophy; the AIAA Astronautics Award; the Octave Chanute Award; and the John J. Montgomery Award.

In poignant contrast to the preceding list of recognition and accomplishments, the Armstrong family statement concludes: “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 lot of people in aviation met Neil and have their story to tell about it. I met him once, in January 1988. Along with 139 other people, we were guests of Clay Lacy on Friendship One, the 747SP (N147UA) that Lacy had borrowed from his employer, United Airlines, with the goal of breaking the round-the-world speed record and raising $500,000 for children’s charities in the process. With time to kill before we all boarded the SP at Boeing Field, Seattle, I headed for the Museum of Flight on the field and got absorbed in the exhibits. At some point I was head down in my camera bag when I noticed a foot appear in my field of vision, glanced over and realized with a thunderclap in the head that this was the foot that had made the small step and giant leap. Aware of Armstrong’s reticence with strangers, I worked hard to steer clear of anything crass like “What goes through your mind when you look up at a full moon?” We chatted about airplanes in general, the museum exhibits and the anticipation of a trip around the world from Seattle to Athens to Taipei to Seattle.

Friendship One did break the record, completing the trip in 36 hours, 54 minutes and 15 seconds, a brief flight compared with the four days and seven hours between Apollo 11’s liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center and touchdown on the moon.

Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.