Neil Armstrong, who set mankind’s first steps on the moon during Apollo 11, the mission that finally made extraterrestrial travel seem real and gave the U.S. a lead in the Cold War space race, has died. He was 82.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, citing Armstrong’s family, said yesterday he died of complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that he had heart surgery.
A record television audience of 528 million people worldwide watched Armstrong, the mission commander, step off the ladder of the lunar module Eagle and onto the moon’s surface at 10:56 p.m. New York time on July 20, 1969. He was followed by pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin about 20 minutes later. Michael Collins remained in orbit, in the command module that would take them all home.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said, a sentence that became one of the most quoted of the 20th century. He told NASA interviewers that he had intended to say “a man,” and that the article “a” might have been lost in transmission. He said his inspiration was the children’s game known as “Baby Steps, Giant Steps.”
The final minutes of the four-day, 239,000-mile trip to the moon had tested Armstrong’s famous cool under pressure.
Piloting the lunar module, he searched for a safe landing spot amid rough terrain, finally touching down with about 20 seconds of fuel left. Back in Houston, mission control had been on the verge of ordering him to abort the landing and return to the command module.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here,” Armstrong radioed home. “The Eagle has landed.”
Apollo 11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s pledge from May 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, as the world’s two superpowers jockeyed for advantage in space. A month before Kennedy’s speech, the Soviet Union had launched astronaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit after several successful unmanned missions.
President Barack Obama said Armstrong was among the greatest of American heroes of all time. When he stepped on the moon, “he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”
House Speaker John Boehner, a representative from Ohio, said, “A true hero has returned to the Heavens to which he once flew.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that as NASA enters its next phase of exploration it does so “standing on the shoulders of Neil Armstrong.”
Destined for the Job
Armstrong was an enigma to his NASA colleagues and to the American public, who rarely saw him after he left the Apollo program.
On one hand, he was widely respected in aviation circles and considered the natural choice to lead the first lunar-landing mission.
“All through the preparation for the mission, I was absolutely amazed at how quiet, how calm he was,” recalled Gene Kranz, NASA’s flight director during Apollo. “The quiet, absolutely superbly confident assurance that Neil had, in retrospect, was pretty inspirational in itself. Here’s a guy who knew he was destined to do a job.”
A man of few words, Armstrong also exhibited an aloofness that troubled those who worked with him. He “never transmits anything but the surface layer, and that only sparingly,” Collins, his Apollo 11 crewmate, wrote. “I like him, but I don’t know what to make of him, or how to get to know him better. He doesn’t seem willing to meet anyone halfway.”
Refuge at Home
The loner with the “breakfast food face,” as writer Norman Mailer described it, willingly relinquished the public podium to Aldrin after the mission and faded into obscurity as he sought to play down his groundbreaking role in history. While Aldrin did the Hollywood party circuit and appeared on talk shows, Armstrong took refuge on his Ohio dairy farm and accepted modest jobs in academia and business that seemed to suit his self-effacing image.
To Armstrong, fame was not just unwanted, but unwarranted.
Being first to land on the moon “is sort of happenstance,” he told a NASA interviewer in 1966, when it was unclear who would get the honor. “It’s not the same sort of thing as when Lindbergh crossed the ocean,” an aviation milestone that was “based on his own ideas and his own techniques and his own accomplishments.”
In a rare interview in 2005, timed to the release of his biography, Armstrong told CBS’s “60 Minutes”: “We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”
Neil Alden Armstrong was born on Aug. 5, 1930, near Wapakoneta, Ohio, on his grandparents’ farm. During his childhood, he moved frequently while his father, Stephen, traveled around the state working as an auditor.
Armstrong developed an early love of airplanes, taking his first flight when he was about 6 years old in Warren, Ohio, James Hansen wrote in his 2005 biography, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.”
Armstrong’s time at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, was interrupted by military service in Korea, where he flew 78 combat missions for the Navy. In September 1953, he struck an antiaircraft cable at 350 mph and ejected over a bay he later learned was heavily mined, according to Craig Nelson’s 2010 book, “Rocket Men.” The wind carried him to a rice field, where his hard landing cracked his tailbone.
After earning an aeronautical-engineering degree from Purdue in January 1955, he became a research pilot for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, at a center in Cleveland, and transferred to the High-Speed Flight Station at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in July 1955.
At Edwards, Armstrong flew such aircraft as the Bell X-1B and North American X-15, Hansen wrote. He flew more than 900 flights in the seven years he spent there.
The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 and Kennedy’s speech to the nation about a moon mission helped turn Armstrong’s interest toward space.
NASA chose a new group of astronauts in early 1962 to join the original Project Mercury members in piloting the two-man Gemini spacecraft. The goal was to learn how to rendezvous and dock vehicles in orbit.
In September 1962, NASA introduced Armstrong as one of nine new astronauts. James Lovell Jr., the future commander of Apollo 13, was also included. The “Next Nine,” as the second class was called, “was the best NASA ever picked,” said Collins, who, along with Aldrin, was in the third group of astronauts.
Armstrong’s first spaceflight was on Gemini 8 in March 1966, the first planned rendezvous and docking in space. He and David Scott achieved the first docking in space before their mission was aborted when the connected spacecrafts began spinning out of control. Armstrong managed to stop the spin and both astronauts maintained consciousness. (Asked about the emergency years later in a NASA interview, the understated Armstrong called it “a non-trivial situation.”)
Testing a version of the lunar lander in May 1968, Armstrong averted a fiery death by ejecting seconds before the vehicle, leaking propellant, crashed. “I bit my tongue, but that was the only real damage,” he said in a taped interview in 2011 with CPA Australia, an accounting industry membership group.
Armstrong was named backup commander for Apollo 8, the December 1968 mission that put the first humans in orbit around the moon. Once that mission was successfully under way, Armstrong was ready for his next assignment. Deke Slayton, head of the astronaut office, proposed that he lead Apollo 11. Soon it became clear that, should Apollo 9 and 10 go smoothly, Apollo 11 would be the first attempt to land on the moon.
In April 1969, NASA said Armstrong would be the first to step out onto the moon’s surface. Apollo 11 blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16.
“I thought we had a 90 percent chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight, but only a 50-50 chance of making a successful landing” on the moon, Armstrong said in his 2011 interview with CPA Australia. He said there were “so many unknowns” about descending from orbit to the surface.
A camera mounted on the lunar module sent back live, grainy video of Armstrong, then Aldrin, alighting on the moon’s surface. Under NASA’s carefully prescribed schedule, Armstrong’s first assignment was to scoop up a sample of lunar dirt and rocks, in case some emergency required an immediate departure. He became so engrossed in taking photographs -- some of which are among the most famous images in human exploration -- that mission control had to remind him three times about the sample.
Parades and Honors
“I’m going to get to that just as soon as I finish this picture series,” Armstrong replied.
He and Aldrin conducted experiments, collected lunar rocks, planted a U.S. flag and left a commemorative plaque that reads: “Here Men From the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We Came in Peace for All Mankind.” It bore the signatures of the three astronauts and President Richard Nixon.
The first travelers to the moon’s surface then rendezvoused with the Columbia command module, where Collins had been keeping his lonely vigil.
Following their arrival back on Earth on July 24 and then a precautionary quarantine, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins participated in parades in their honor, including one in New York City that drew an estimated 4 million people. The trio each received the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The next year, Armstrong was involved with NASA’s internal investigation into the cause of the malfunction aboard Moon-bound Apollo 13 that could have killed astronauts Lovell, Fred Haise Jr. and John Swigert. An oxygen tank exploded in the command module and forced them to abort the mission.
Armstrong quit the astronaut corps in May 1970 to become a NASA administrator for a year before leaving, partly from the constant demand for official public appearances.
He taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati from 1971 to 1980 and joined numerous boards, including that of rocket maker Thiokol Corp. He also served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the 1986 explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger.
In 1978, Armstrong severed the ring finger of his left hand when his wedding ring got stuck on a latch at his Ohio dairy farm. Rather than scream or run, Armstrong found his finger, iced it, drove to the hospital and had it reattached, according to Nelson’s account.
Armstrong, who became increasingly media-shy in later years, was involved in fundraising for Purdue, and in October 2007 took part in dedicating a $53.2 million engineering building named after him.
Armstrong married Janet Shearon in January 1956. They had two sons, Eric and Mark. A daughter, Karen, died in 1962 at 3 years old after a six-month battle with a brain tumor.
The couple divorced in 1994 after 38 years of marriage. Armstrong then married Carol Knight, whom he had met two years earlier at a golf tournament.
In the 2011 interview, Armstrong said he wasn’t bothered that a small but insistent group of conspiracy theorists believed the moon landing was a hoax staged by the U.S. government.
“It was never a concern to me,” Armstrong said, “because I know that one day, somebody’s going to go fly back up there and pick up that camera I left. So then they’ll be sure.”