On a sadder note: First moonwalker Neil Armstrong was cool under fire but a reluctant hero

by | Aug 28, 2012 | Apollo, exploration, History, NASA, Orion, Seradata News | 1 comment

Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon in July 1969, has passed away on 25 August, three weeks after his 82nd birthday.  Armstrong had been recovering from medical procedures to alleviate his blocked coronary arteries, when complications led to his death.

Tributes to Armstrong’s life and achievements have been received from around the world. President of the United States, Barack Obama, made his own tribute to the late astronaut even though Armstrong was a critic of his own space policy: “Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time,” President Obama said.

Neil’s early life has aviation take centre stage

Armstrong was born on 5 August 1930 in Wapokoneta, Ohio.  As a child, Armstrong developed a lifelong interest in aviation and became a pilot by the age of 15.   Armstrong started studying aeronautical engineering at Purdue University as a US Navy sponsored student and served in the Korean War as a US Navy fighter pilot.  He finally gained his degree in 1955. He later gained a Masters degree in 1970 from the University of Southern California.

Becoming a civilian test pilot as part of the NACA forerunner to NASA after the war, Armstrong flew the supersonic Bell X1-B and the later hypersonic X-15 rocket plane.  He joined NASA in 1962, taking part in the Gemini and Apollo programmes.

The 38-year-old Armstrong was chosen as mission commander for Apollo 11 due to his piloting skills, his intelligence and, most importantly, for his coolness under fire, in reference his duty to fly the lunar module down to a safe landing – or know when to abort the attempt..

While there were other great astronaut commanders and pilots on the programme (Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Pete Conrad, John Young come to mind) Armstrong was chosen for the key role of being the first pilot astronaut to attempt to land the lunar module on the moon (note that while Aldrin was titled lunar module pilot, in reality this was a systems monitoring role).

Armstrong had previously shown ability to make the right decisions when his survival was at stake.  In his time as a US Navy fighter-bomber pilot in the Korean War, he managed to put his damaged  F9F Panther jet, which had been shot up by ground fire, over safe territory before he ejected.  During an X-15 flight, Armstrong had bounced off the craft off the atmosphere which, in turn, caused the craft to subsequently overshoot the runway at Mach 3.  He just managed to glide back to the landing strip.

Becoming an astronaut and becoming known for his “coolness under fire”

Having joined the manned space programme in 1962 he commanded Gemini 8 and again saved this mission from disaster by his quick thinking.  By firing re-entry control thrusters during a rapid continuous roll due to a jammed thruster, he saved the craft before he and his crew mate, David Scott, blacked out   By using the re-entry thrusters however, flight rules stated that the mission had to be terminated immediately.

There was another close escape for Armstrong during his astronaut training, a turbofan powered Lunar Landing Training Vehicle that Armstrong was piloting went out of control but he managed to eject seconds before its fiery destruction.  It was later adjudged that if he had left his ejection another half a second he would not have survived.  Armstrong’s colleages were suprised to find him, after this near disaster, coolly at his desk catching up with his paperwork.

Such escapes led NASA to believe that Armstrong would know if and when to eject the ascent module from the landing module if things went wrong during the descent and landing stages of Apollo 11.

It was also decided, to the chagrin of his fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, that Armstrong would also be the first astronaut to set foot on the Moon.  This decision was made by NASA high command for reasons of Armstrong’s ego-free nature, his official civilian status (Armstrong actually had a higher salary compared to his military astronaut colleagues), and probablly due to his relative good looks.  Later it was found that it was practically better due to the hatch configuration favouring the commander leaving first.

A scary landing but Armstrong safely passed over the rocks before skidding it in

NASA’s choice seemed vindicated as Armstrong’s coolness under fire was needed during Apollo 11’s landing.  During the descent several alarms went off due to a computer overload/landing radar mismatch but these were ignored by the astronauts after mission control gave them the all clear.

On approach, it became apparent that the landing module wasfurther down range than expected (later traced to unintentional extra delta V caused by the undocking and  flyaround check before landing).  As a result the craft was heading for a boulder strewn crater, and Armstrong decided to toke manual control pitching the craft forward to fly onwards to a clear site..  With Aldrin calling out the fuel states and height, Armstrong managed to land with just seconds of fuel to spare. The landing was made in a cloud of dust and with a slight drift at 0.67 degrees North, 23.47 degrees East on the Moon in the Sea of Tranquility at 2017 GMT on 20th July.  Armstrong remained critical of himself for the slight skid in landing (too much skid could have collapsed the lunar modules legs) and was embarrassed over later causing a guidance system gimbal lock just before docking during the later ascent.

Armstrong became part of history when he set foot on the Moon at 0226 GMT on 21 May). after the landing with Aldrin following shortly afterwards.  The reason for the missing “a” Armstrong’s first words:  “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”, which were apparently inspired by an Apollo programme engineer, has been famously argued about since.

Armstrong and Aldrin on Moon as imaged by the Maurer 16mm camera from the window of the lunar module.  Courtesy: NASA

The crew returned to the lunar module with their samples and photographs (Armstrong took most of the photos and the only really clear forward shot of him is via the lunar module Maurer 16mm cine camera set on intermittent mode.

Armstrong had taken an especial interest in how the hypergolic propellant ascent engine would be fired as he suggested a mechanical tap arrangement rather than electrical relays.  It was a heartstopping moment for both Armstrong and Aldrin when the found that the engine arming circuit breaker switch had broken off.  A pen lodged in the respective hole solved the problem.

Armstrong and Aldrin thus successfully launched themselves back into lunar orbit and managed (despite the gimbal lock mistake) to dock with the command and service modules piloted by Mike Collins ready for return to Earth.  After their landing and carrier recovery the three crewmen had to have a period of quaranteen.  After this Armstrong and his fellow astronauts went on a world tour to celebrate their acheivements variously meeting heads of state around the world including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

While more serious than other Apollo crews, Neil Armstrong and his crewmates were not without humour. On their return, they filed travel expenses claims detailing their journey from Houston, via Kennedy Space Centre, to and from the Moon, to the Pacific and back. The crew expressed mock regret that a mileage claim was not allowed.   The crew was also amused to find out that a customs form for the imporation of their moon rock samples also had to be signed.

Armstrong carried part of the left propellor and some wing fabric from the 1903 Wright-Brothers flyer on the journey and a pin that was to have been carried by Apollo 1.

Privacy became the biggest concern for Armstrong

Armstrong soon became weary of public adulation and retreated into the world of academia becomiing a lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinatti in 1971.

Neil Armstrong appreciated that he was just the pinnacle of an effort involving tens of thousands of workers, albeit at the dangerous end of that pyramid. Nevertheless, while NASA was pleased with its choice of pilot, it remained disappointed that this intensely private man had retreated from the public eye at the first opportunity.

In semi-retirement from 1979, Armstrong retreated to his farm though he did have business interests including acting as a spokesman for some US firms and as a director on the boards of several companies.  While he did appear in commercials for the motor manufacturer Chrysler in 1979, for the most part Armstrong was careful not to cash in on his name, refusing even to sign autographs.

Neil Armstrong gave further service to his nation In 1986, when he served on the Rogers commission which investigated the cause of the STS-51L Space Shuttle Challenger launch failure.  Armstrong had previously taken part in the investigation into the fatal Apollo 1 launch pad fire.

Armstrong felt forced to speak out against Obama’s manned space policy

Armstrong was careful to keep out of politics and only really became involved after President Obama’s decided in 2010 to cut Project Constellation while, at the same time, agreeing to end the Space Shuttle programme before any new manned launch system was ready.  Armstrong called the cuts to Project Constellation “devastating” and lamented that USA was, for a time, losing its own capability of launching astronauts.

Neverthless, while criticising its timing, Armstrong later noted that he was, in fact, a supporter of commercialising manned launches, though he warned that such inexperienced systems would probably have reliability issues early in their careers.

Armstrong also became part of the astronaut and senate-led clamour for a new heavy-lift launch vehicle which would be essential for long range space exporation after the Obama administration looked set to be dragging its heals over its development.  This battle was later won with the decision to build the Space Launch System (SLS) and to keep the Orion spacecraft developed by Project Constellation.

Neil Armstrong happily met President Obama at the White House during the 40th anniversary celebrations of the moonlanding in 2009, but less than a year later they became opponents over the future of the US space programme.  Courtesy: NASA

Sadness in his private life

While his professional life had major achievements, Neil Armstrong’s personal life has had some sadder moments.  After a five year separation, his first wife Janet (nee Shearon) divorced Neil Armstrong in 1994 after 38 years of marriage.  Armstrong remarried in 1992 to Carol Knight.

By his first marriage, Armstrong had three children: Eric, Karen and Mark.  Sadly, Karen died from a brain tumour at the age of two – an event which reportedly caused the anguished Armstrong to retreat into his work.

For the most part Armstrong’s health was good.  There was one notable incident in which he tore the tip of his figure off after his wedding ring became caught in the wheel of at truck as he jumped off while working on his farm near Lebanon, Ohio.  Armstrong coolly collected it and packed it in ice, and surgeons later successfully reattached the finger tip.  Armstrong suffered a minor heart attack in 1991 before his final heart-related death in 2012.

Remembering Neil Armstrong

Flightglobal/Ascend’s space team gives its condolences to Neil Armstrong’s family and friends.

On his death, Armstrong’s family paid tribute to “a very good man” and a “reluctant American hero” adding: “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.”

As we salute this gallant and modest man, it will be the least that we can do.

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