WASHINGTON – America, and in the broadest sense possible, all of humanity, has lost its first emissary to set foot on another world – Neil Alden Armstrong.
Neil died Saturday at the age of 82 from complications due to his recent heart bypass surgery. I was not surprised with his passing as I never heard a news report on how it had gone. But that was his way – intensely private and rarely in the public eye.
If you were born before 1964, chances are you were glued to your TV or radio on July 20, 1969 to watch the historic Apollo 11 mission and Moon landing. I can still remember Mercury and Apollo 7 astronaut Wally Schirra and Walter Cronkite on CBS News watching with the world the grainy black and white images of first Neil and then Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon. And of course there was Neil’s famous quote as he stepped off of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM).
Although I never met or saw Neil in person, I have followed his life for decades. Neil flew 78 combat missions in Korea off of aircraft carriers – he was a naval aviator. He joined the predecessor to NASA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) in 1955 as a civilian. In his career he flew over 200 aircraft/spacecraft types and was an accomplished aeronautical/aerospace engineer with an undergrad degree from Purdue and a Master’s from University of Southern California.
He transferred as a NASA employee to the astronaut corps in 1962 and flew/commanded Gemini VIII in March 1966.
I am old enough to have watched the news when he flew Gemini VIII and calmly prevented a disaster. The Agena rocket that his Gemini spacecraft had docked with – this was the first time in history two spacecraft had done so and was a necessary milestone to get to the Moon – began to gyrate wildly due to a stuck thruster on the Gemini spacecraft. With the very real possibility of blacking out due to the high g-load caused by the frantic spinning of the joined spacecraft, Neil initiated an emergency landing sequence which saved the day. He and future moonwalker David R. Scott returned safely to Earth.
He also had a brush with death flying the lunar excursion module trainer – the “Flying Bedstead”. The craft went out of control and Neil was seconds from death when he ejected:
That kind of calm under pressure gave him a well deserved reputation for being “a cool stone” – a nerves of steel pilot that could handle the hairiest situations cooly and successfully.
Neil’s flying abilities and composure came in handy as the first Moon landing was not easy. There were alarms going off, the auto-guidance system was leading the Eagle LEM towards a landing area full of boulders and craters and fuel supply was a defining factor – they had 30 seconds or less left upon touchdown.
I have always wondered if Neil’s stature as a civilian played any part in his selection as the Commander of Apollo 11, and first human to walk on the Moon. It is obvious that his flying skills and demeanor made him a natural choice. But I have always felt that his civilian status was a bonus as it truly added to the significance of the plaque mounted on the Eagle’s ladder/landing leg that states,”We came in peace for all mankind”.
The rest is as they say, history.
The world has lost an icon. He now belongs to the Cosmos.
Next time when you look at the Moon, remember and honor the man who first set foot there.