Neil Armstrong

"Opportunities will be available to you that you cannot imagine."

The Flame is Kindled     Chances are that if you ask a kid what he wants to be when he grows up, and then wait a couple of decades, the kid is not going to be a celebrity, a member of any royal family, a professional athlete, a singing superstar, a lion tamer, or an astronaut.  Life happens, interests change, and all too frequently there is another path -- or paths -- to take.  But, sometimes, from the most unlikely of experiences, even in very rural Ohio, an interest is sparked at a very tender age.

Neil Alden Armstrong was born in 1930, in Wapakoneta, Ohio.  The current population is just under 10,000 people, so you know it was so much smaller nearly 100 years ago.  And, in case you just have to know, the place was first established as a Shawnee settlement named "Waughpaughkonnetta".  It's believed that the name in Shawnee means "the place of white bones".

The Wright brothers, from nearby in the same part of Ohio, took their flight into the history books in 1903.  Aviation was still a novelty when two-year-old Neil and his father visited the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio.  Four years later, in Warren, Ohio, a six-year-old wannabe pilot flew his first flight and developed a fascination for model airplanes, wind tunnel experiments, and everything to do with outer space.  Determined to fly, the young man was licensed by 15 or 16, even before he had a license to drive a car!  To pay for this, young Neil worked odd jobs around town and at the local airport.

Horrors!  Not a Buckeye!     When Armstrong was 17, he headed to Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering.  However, his plans were interrupted by the Korean War.   The young pilot was called to serve with the U.S. Navy in 1949.  His duty was to fly planes off aircraft carriers, and in total he flew 78 combat missions.  On one occasion, his plane was shot down.  Fortunately for Ohio history books, Armstrong ejected and parachuted to safety.

After serving in the war, Armstrong completed his degree from Purdue and then earned a master's degree in aerospace engineering from the Ohio State University ...  No, not really!  For the second degree, he attended another university out of state, the University of Southern California.

With the war and college behind him, in 1955, the next step for Neil Armstrong was to become a test pilot.  The organization that he worked for eventually evolved into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  While with this NASA forerunner, he test flew more than 200 aircraft that ranged from gliders to jets.  He flew some of the fastest planes in the world, setting a record or two along the way.

To Infinity and Beyond . . .     Armstrong applied to become one of the earliest astronauts for the United States.  In 1962, he was selected for the NASA Astronaut Corps for "Project Gemini".  Interestingly, Armstrong's application for the project arrived a week after the project deadline.  Dick Day, an expert who once worked with Neil and knew how qualified he was, slipped the application into the pile with the others.  Who knew?  Seriously, what an amazing piece of trivia!  So, after a series of harsh physical tests, Armstrong became part of the "New Nine", the second group of nine NASA astronauts.  Another Buckeye was in the first set of NASA astronauts, the "Mercury Seven", who were selected in 1959.  These two astronauts from Ohio became life-long friends, Neil Armstrong and John Glenn.

Ten Gemini crews, consisting of 16 astronauts, flew missions low in the earth's orbit in 1965 and 1966.  These missions helped NASA develop the techniques necessary for the eventual missions to the moon with the Apollo program.  In March of 1966, Armstrong commanded his first mission into space on Gemini 8.

. . . or at least to the Moon!     On October 4, 1957, the USSR launched a 184-pound satellite into orbit, Sputnik, that sent shockwaves around the world.  Then, on April 12, 1961, the Soviets launched the first man into orbit, Yuri Gagarin.  Launching Sputnik might have been a crisis for the West, but putting Gagarin into space set things into overdrive.  The race to successfully fly to the moon (and safely return, please) began in earnest.  President John F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, asked the U.S. Congress to commit to the successful Moon mission by the end of the decade.  Kennedy declared, "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important to the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong was destined to be that first person to walk on the moon.

The Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, and sent Armstrong and his co-pilots Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins into history.  There were months, and years, of preparation for this event.  But, naturally, it didn't go off without a hitch.  Four days later, as the Lunar Module, named the Eagle, descended to the surface of the Moon, Armstrong had to manually take over control of the landing.  It wasn't planned and there was only limited fuel for such things.  Armstrong finally declared, "Houston, Tranquility Base here.  The Eagle has landed!" with 40 seconds of fuel to spare.  From Houston, Charles Duke replied, "Roger, Tranquility.  We copy you on the ground.  You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue.  We're breathing again.  Thanks a lot."

It wasn't just the NASA staff in Houston who held their breath.  A mere 238,900 miles away, six hundred million people back on Earth (about one fifth of the planet's population), watched as the astronauts landed and walked on the surface of the Moon.  It was the largest audience for any single event in history.

11 or 12 Words     When half a billion people are watching everything you do and say, there's a good chance that something memorable is going to happen.  As Armstrong descended the ladder to the lunar surface, he said eleven very famous words. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."  The words are etched into the memory of anyone who heard the original broadcast or read about it in history.  At least, those words are what many people back on the earth heard over the static in the communication.  Armstrong insisted that he said a twelfth word.  He said it was a giant leap for "a" man.  However, even he admitted that he couldn't hear that word in the recording of the message that went out to all of the world.  Either way, he came up with a really good sentence to write in the history books.

( -- We interrupt this biography for a very special newsflash!  Now, I really appreciate a good sense of humor.  As astronaut Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the Moon, planted his foot on the surface, he gave a nod to Armstrong and his very famous words.  He cried out, "Whoopie!  Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that was a long one for me."  And now, we return to our regularly scheduled biography back on the surface of the Moon. -- )

In what had to have been one of the world's most "missed it by that much!" moments, Michael Collins remained sixty miles above his team, circling the Moon, in the Command Module Columbia.  Meanwhile, for two and a half hours, Armstrong and Aldrin explored the surface of the moon. Armstrong is quoted as saying, "The sights were simply magnificent, beyond any visual experience that I had ever been exposed to."  They were so far from home that Neil could block out the entire planet with his thumb.

The astronauts collected soil samples, made measurement, took photos for the history books, planted a United States flag on the surface of the Moon, and left footprints that will last through the ages.  There is no wind on the Moon to ever erase those prints.  Back on Earth, people walked outside to gaze at the Moon for a possible glimpse of what they just witnessed.  Others hauled out their telescopes.  These three men, and the massive team of scientists behind them, captivated the world with their accomplishments.

Another surprising bit of trivia is the distance that the astronauts walked during their visit to the Moon.  It was just about 60 yards.  If you need help to visualize that, think about the width of a football field or the distance between two bases in baseball.  You can also imagine an 18 story building or five school buses in a row.  If you prefer to think of your distances in animals, that's roughly eleven Asian elephants or six thirty-foot pythons.  It doesn't appear that they walked very far.  I would go much farther if I ever saw a thirty-foot python coming my direction.

Hometown Heroes and World-Wide Role Models     The three astronauts arrived safely back on earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean, on July 24, 1969.  The waters may have been peaceful, but there was a tidal wave of world-wide enthusiasm for the new heroes. The trio of astronauts were given ticker tape parades in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York before making a 22-nation world tour.  Even in tiny Wapakoneta, the population grew five times its size due to the media circus.  The frenzy swirled around the home of Armstrong's parents as people literally pulled out grass from their front yard!

Fame is a tricky thing.  It can ruin many people.  Armstrong might have been a great American hero, but he was a reluctant one as well.  He never let himself get caught up in all of the glitz and glamour of the celebrity spotlight.  He maintained his modesty and self-effacing way, not granting many interviews, speeches, or appearances.  He simply didn't like being treated as a novelty.

Life After Apollo 11     After the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong only remained with NASA two more years, retiring from there in 1971.  He found all the attention from the press to be exhausting.  He decided it was a good time to return to Ohio and teach aerospace engineering at the Ohio State University ...  No, what?  Are you kidding me?  He went to the University of Cincinnati?  Seriously?  Yes, that's right.  He taught there until 1979.  During this time, he bought a 310-acre farm, near Lebanon, Ohio, where he raised corn and cattle.

Armstrong served as a spokesman for several businesses, including Chrysler.  He also served on the board of directors for other businesses.  An interesting life experience that most people never get, in addition to walking on the Moon, was his expedition to the North Pole.  He went with a small group of other explorers in April of 1985.  Armstrong said he wanted to see what the North Pole looked like from ground level because he'd only seen it from the surface of the Moon!

Memories and Legacy     Armstrong avoided the spotlight, but there were occasions when he stepped into it.  In celebration of the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbit around the planet, in February, 2012, he praised his friend.  He commented that on many occasions Glenn said how much he wished he had also been on the Apollo 11 mission.  In fact, Glenn said that it was his only regret.  On one occasion, the friends embraced, and the old astronaut said, "To this day, he's the one person on earth I'm truly, truly envious of."

Sometimes life has interesting little quirks of fate.  When Neil Armstrong took that memorable step into history, I lived in Fairfield, Ohio.  Decades later, on August 25, 2012, Neil Armstrong died at age 82 in the very same city from complications with coronary bypass surgery.  In case fate plans any further quirks, I plan to avoid future trips to Wapakoneta, Ohio.

When someone so remarkable passes away, there should be some very good quotes to honor the person.  Perhaps NASA administrator and former astronaut, Charles Bolden said it best, "As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind's first small step on a world beyond our own."  Mitt Romney eloquently stated, "Neil Armstrong today takes his place in the hall of heroes.  With courage unmeasured and unbounded love for his country, he walked where man had never walked before.  The moon will miss its first son of earth."

I looked at a lot of sources to gather the information for this biography.  However, without competition, the two best sources were Wikipedia (I know, what?) and the Associated Press.  If you want a deep-dive on information about a great American hero, these are two excellent places to start.

If these words inspire you, even a little, you may want to follow the Armstrong family's request.  It's a simple thing to do: "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."