Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Remembering Neil Armstrong

There was a time when astronauts were celebrities. They were household names. They were the heroes to whom children would look up and aspire to emulate when they were grown. Large audiences would tune into watch NASA's manned space missions. Children would up at the moon to see if they could see the astronauts there.

Of the many astronauts to serve in the history of NASA, none was more famous than Neil Armstrong. He was the man who went where no man had gone before, the first man to set foot on the Moon. Mr. Armstrong only seemed all the more heroic in that he always maintained he was not a hero, but simply a man doing a job. Never mind that it took an enormous amount of training before he stepped on the lunar surface, it also took an enormous amount of courage and determination. All the same, Neil Armstrong always shared the credit for his accomplishment with others, everyone from his fellow astronauts to Mission Control, and he never tried to capitalise on his accomplishment. He never ran for office, rarely made endorsements, or otherwise took advantage of his fame. After 1994 he would not even sign autographs. The man who had every reason to boast of what he had done never did.

Sadly, Neil Armstrong died 24 August 2012 at the age of 82. The cause was complications from heart bypass surgery.

Neil Armstrong was born on 5 August 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio. His love of manned flight began when he was only two years old, when his father took him to the Cleveland Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. He was only six years old when he experienced his first flight in an aeroplane, when his father and himself took a ride in a Ford Trimotor or "Tin Goose" in Warren, Ohio. Neil Armstrong was still a teenager when he started taking flying lessons at the Auglaize County airport. He received his pilot's licence when he was only 15, before he was even old enough to have a driver's licence. He was active in the Boy Scouts and rose to the rank of Eagle Scout. He attended Pudue University on a Navy scholarship and he majored in engineering. His college education would be interrupted when in 1949 he was called up for the Navy. During the Korean War Mr. Armstrong served as a fighter pilot and flew 78 combat missions. In the Navy he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade. After he was demobilised, he returned to Purdue to continue his studies.

Following the war Neil Armstrong became a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA. His first test flight was in a Bell X-1B, a more advanced version of the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager had first broken the sound barrier. He would be among the pilots to test the North American X-15, an experimental, rocket powered aircraft. He made 7 flights in the X-15. He had been chosen as one of the pilots to test the  Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar, but instead sought out another opportunity. In the months after his selection as one of the X-20 Dyna-Soar test pilots, NASA was taking applications for a second batch of astronauts. Neil Armstrong then became part of the "New Nine" of the Astronaut Corps.

Neil Armstrong would become the first civilian astronaut to go into space. He was the commander of Gemini 8, the historic space mission in two space vehicles successfully docked for the first time (Gemini and the unmanned unmanned Agena). Unfortunately one the two vehicles were docked, they began to roll. The rolling continued even after Neil Armstrong separated Gemini from Agena. Eventually the astronauts restored stability, at which point Mission Control told them to return home. Neil Armstrong was later the backup Command Pilot for both Gemini 11 and backup commander for Apollo 8. It was in a secret meeting in December 1968 that Neil Armstrong was chosen as commander of Apollo 11, the projected first lunar landing. It was in March 1969 that NASA decided Neil Armstrong would be the first man to set foot on the moon.

It was on 20 July 1969 that the first lunar landing took place. Initially the lunar module was headed for an  area of the Moon laden with boulders. Neil Armstrong took semi-automatic control of the craft and set it down safely. There was only 30 seconds worth left of fuel upon the lunar module's landing. It was six and a half hours after landing that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon with the historic words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind (although there has been controversy over whether he said "a man" or simply "man" ever since). Buzz Aldrin would join Neil Armstrong 20 minutes after he had made that first small step. The two set up a plaque in commemoration of the lunar landing, which read, Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”  They also planted an American flag on the surface of the Moon, set up the Early Apollo Scientific Experiment Package, and left a memorial for Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, and Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee, who all died in the line of duty. That first historic moon walk lasted only two and a half hours.

After their return from the Moon, the astronauts spent 18 days in quarantine to insure they had picked up no infections from the Moon. They then went on a 45 day tour around the United States and the world. Neil Armstrong then took part in Bob Hope's USO tour and later toured the Soviet Union. It was not long afterwards that Neil Armstrong announced that he did not plan to fly in space again. He was appointed Deputy Associate Administrator for aeronautics for the Office of Advanced Research and Technology, Advanced Research Projects Agency, a post in which he served only a year. He then accepted the position in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He left that position after 8 years.

Neil Armstrong would spend much of the latter part of his life working on his farm. He would take part into two investigations into NASA accidents. The first time was in 1970 when as part of a panel he produced a detailed chronology of the flight of the ill fated Apollo 13. In 1986 he was part of the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster. While Neil Armstrong avoided the offers of most businesses to serve as a spokesman, he did accept a few offers. In 1979 he served as a spokesman for Chrysler, feeling that they had a strong engineering department and wishing to help the failing automotive company. He would later serve as a spokesman for General Time Corporation and the Bankers Association of America. Mr. Armstrong would also serve on the boards of directors of such companies as AIL Systems, Cinergy, Eaton Corporation, Learjet, Marathon Oil, Taft Broadcasting, and Thiokol. He once served as hairman of the board of EDO Corporation. He was approached with offers to run for office from various political organisations, but he always turned them down.  While Mr. Armstrong rarely gave interviews, he did give several speeches and continued to encourage the continuation of the space programme.

In a statement issued by Neil Armstrong's family, they described him as "...a reluctant hero who always believed he was just doing his job.” Indeed, as noted above, he never took advantage of his fame as the first man to walk on the Moon. The endorsement deals he accepted were few and far between, and he never ran for office. He was always careful to give credit for the success of his accomplishment to his fellow astronauts and the crew and staff at NASA. In fact, after his historical first step on the Moon he spent his life as a private individual, never making a big deal out of an accomplishment that was perhaps the biggest deal of the 20th Century. NASA's current administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. said of Neil Armstrong that he, "...carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all." Neil Armstrong was not simply a hero because he was the first man to set foot on the Moon or even because of his previous accomplishments as a fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He was a hero because he did all of these things without boasting of them or using them for personal gain. Quite simply, he was a hero because he was a man who simply did his job, a job few others would dare to do.

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