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Neil Armstrong: Remembering a Reluctant Hero

As the world marks the passing of Neil A. Armstrong, there are a good many words being used to describe his amazing life and achievements. A quiet and gentle man, he sought neither the fame that came his way nor the amazing opportunities that his American life offered him. A Midwest boy from Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930.

Almost from the beginning of his life, Armstrong seem destined for a career in aviation, attending the Cleveland Air Races at age 2, taking his first ride in a Ford Tri-Motor with his father when he was 6, and soloing for his private pilot’s license at 15. A distinguished Eagle Scout, Armstrong studied engineering at Purdue University and the University of Southern California.

Armstrong in X-15

Neil Armstrong in the cockpit of an X-15, photographed at Dryden Flight Research Center in 1961. NASA photo

Armstrong’s military flying career began in 1949 when he reported to NAS Pensacola, Fla., to begin training as a naval aviator. In Korea he flew 78 combat missions in F9F Panther fighter-bombers before leaving the Navy in 1952 to finish his undergraduate degree at Purdue. In 1955, he joined the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)) as a civilian test pilot at the what today is known as the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, Calif.

Starting as a chase and drop aircraft pilot for the NACA rocket planes of the era, he eventually wound up flying the manned missiles himself.

In seven missions aboard the X-15, he flew the rocket plane to an altitude of 207,500 feet (63.2 km) and a speed of Mach 5.74 (4,000 mph or 6,615 km/hr), and set the record for the longest flight (time and distance) of the entire program. By the end of his test-flying career at NACA/NASA, Armstrong had flown around 200 different kinds of aircraft in 2,400 hours of flight time.

Neil Armstrong’s move to space predated his selection as an astronaut in 1962. Previously, Armstrong had been on the advisory panel and selected to fly for the Air Force’s Man in Space Soonest program, which was cancelled in favor of NASA’s Project Mercury. He also was selected to fly the Air Force X-20 Dyna-Soar spaceplane, before that program was cancelled in 1962. That was the same year that Armstrong got the news that NASA was going to select a second group of astronauts, to work with the “Original 7” on the upcoming Gemini and Apollo programs.

Armstrong, Scott Gemini

Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and David R. Scott sit with their spacecraft hatches open while awaiting the arrival of the recovery ship, the USS Leonard F. Mason after the successful completion of their Gemini VIII mission. They are assisted by U.S. Navy divers. Armstrong’s piloting averted what could have been a disaster when one of the Gemini spacecraft’s maneuvering thrusters would not stop firing. NASA photo

In spite of his application arriving two weeks after the deadline, Astronaut Office chief Deke Slayton decided to add his name to the list of candidates anyway. Within a few months, Armstrong was a member of what was called the “New Nine” and on his way to a date with destiny on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

From the moment he began flying as a teenager, friends, family, and acquaintances noted the ease with which Armstrong took to flying, whatever kind of machine he had at his command. This is not to say that Neil Armstrong was a perfect pilot. His record time and distance on one X-15 mission was due to a flawed re-entry setup that caused the rocket plane to actually “bounce” off of the atmosphere and get thrown well downrange past Edwards AFB. That particular mistake would have killed most test pilots, and should have cost the X-15 program one of its priceless research aircraft. Instead, Armstrong quickly and coolly worked the remaining energy available to maneuver the aircraft just over the Joshua Trees to a safe landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards AFB unharmed. His engineer’s understanding of his aircraft, along with some extraordinary flying skills and a rare coolness allowed both he and the X-15 to fly another day. This is clearly one of the reasons why Deke Slayton and the selection team for the “New Nine” wanted Armstrong flying spacecraft for NASA.

Armstrong rapidly acquired the trust and confidence of the NASA leadership, as he became one of only two “rookie” commanders to fly a Gemini mission, and the first civilian astronaut. That mission, Gemini 8, was saved from disaster when malfunctioning thrusters began to spin and tumble the spacecraft and an Agena docking target. Armstrong activated the re-entry thrusters, and with the assistance of co-pilot Dave Scott, undocked, stabilized the Gemini spacecraft, and rapidly performed a successful re-entry back to the safety of the Pacific Ocean.

Two years later, he survived the malfunction and crash of a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, having the quick perceptions and good sense to eject from the notoriously unstable aircraft. This record of in-flight performance under emergency conditions, along with his other imposing technical and personal credentials, contributed to his becoming commander of the fifth planned Apollo mission, Apollo 11.

Armstrong and Aldrin on moon

The deployment of the flag of the United States on the surface of the moon is captured on film during the first Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Armstrong stands on the left at the flag’s staff. Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., lunar module pilot, is also pictured. The picture was taken from film exposed by the 16mm Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) which was mounted in the Lunar Module (LM). NASA photo

When a computer malfunction in the Lunar Module “Eagle” during the terminal landing phase threatened to force an abort just short of landing, he quickly and coolly took manual control of the spacecraft and landed without incident. Six hours later he became the first man to set foot on the moon. Though clearly a hero in the eyes and the entire support team at NASA, Armstrong simply never saw himself in that role. His fame and the adulation that came with it was always something he dealt with reluctantly, though never to the point where it affected his judgment, personal courage, or commitment.

I had the pleasure of meeting Neil Armstrong, listening to him lecture, and even socializing with him on several occasions. And for all the other kids who idolized this humble man as a childhood hero, I’m proud to tell you that he was everything good that we hoped he was, and more. Behind the public face of this reluctant hero was a man of deep and personal passions, especially where flying and engineering were concerned. There was a great dignity to Neil Armstrong, and he rarely traded on his fame as “the first man on the moon.” He was a husband, father, grandfather, and kept his own counsel. Most of all, despite a reputation as a recluse, he never stopped talking to people about his experiences, memories, and hopes for America’s future, both in space and here on planet Earth. As an American, I’m proud to know that Neil Armstrong was the human race’s first representative to walk on another world. We needed to send the best of us, and Neil Armstrong was.



John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...