Neil Armstrong

astronauts, Neil Armstrong, NASA.

(August 5, 1930 â€“ August 25, 2012)

Neil Armstrong. The first person to walk on the moon.

It is hard to imagine another person whose name will be instantly recalled by people hundreds of years from now. But even if Armstrong had not been the first his exploits as a pilot and astronaut would have warranted fame.

Neil Armstrong, like the last man on the moon (Gene Cernan) was a graduate of Purdue University. He studied aeronautical engineering before entering the US Navy where he became an aviator, although he learned to fly by the age of 16 before he even had a drivers licence. Armstrong saw action in the Korean War, flying 78 combat missions. One of these resulted in the loss of a significant section of the right wind of his Grumman F9F Panther during a low level bombing run. Astonshingly he kept flying back to friendly territory, but it was clear that ejection was the only safe option.

Armstong entered Naval service because he had entered university under the Holloway Plan. In effect the Navy paid for his college tuition in return for Armstrong giving three years of service as a Naval aviator. Once his regular commission ended he took up a place as an ensign in the naval reserve while he went back to Purdue to finish his degree in aeronautical engineering. He resigned from the reserve in 1960.

After finishing his degree Neil Armstrong joined NACA‘s High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Airforce Base as an experimental research test pilot. Over his career he flew more than 200 different types of aircraft. These included rocket-powered aircraft like the Bell X-1B and the North American X-15. Armstong’s exploits at Edwards are legendary. His skills respected by all his colleagues, Armstrong was the most technically capable of the X-15 pilots. His colleagues described him having “a mind that absorbed things like a sponge.”

NASA absorbed NACA on October 1, 1958 when Armstrong became a NASA employee. However, with selection for Project Mercury restricted to military test pilots, Arsmstrong as a civilian test pilot was ineligible for consideration. However, when applications were opened for Project Gemini the restriction was lifted and Armstrong began his astronaut career. The first civilian astronaut.

His first flight was as commander of Gemini 8 with Dave Scott as pilot. It was to be the most complex mission yet, involving a spacewalk (the second by an American) and a rendezvous and docking with an unmanned Agena target vehicle. They did successfully complete the first ever docking between two space craft, but that was when the problems began.

The docked vehicles began to roll and mission control advised to undock. Immediately the Gemini capsule’s roll accelerated to dangerous levels. Armstrong managed to regain control of the vehicle. But in doing so committed them to aborting the mission and beginning reentry at the next possible opportunity. It was later determined that one of the maneuvering thrusters had been failing to shut down.

As part of the training for the lunar landings, NASA developed a contraption known as the Flying Bedstead (LLRV for Lunar Landing Research Vehicle) to enable the astronauts to train for flying the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) on the moon. In May 1968 Armstrong was trainging in an LLRV at Ellington Field when his controls failed. He safely ejected from the contraption. Analysis later showed that had he ejected half a second later he would likley not have survived. The story is often used to demonstrate his cool nature and his innate understanding of the capabilities of any machine he piloted – he ejected knowing it was the last possible moment to do so.

Armstong’s second and final mission was Apollo 11. Michael Collins was the Command Module Pilot and Buzz Aldrin the LM Pilot. The mission objective was simply to land safely on the moon, but there was nothing simple about it.

As the LEM with Armstrong and Aldrin descended towards the lunar surface it quickly became clear that they were going to overshoot the landing zone by several miles. Concerned that they may need to abort the landing and rendezvous with the command module, Aldrin had opted to leave the docking radar on (contrary to checklist requirements). What neither he nor any of the other people involved in the mission knew at the time, was that leaving the docking radar on during the ladning attempt overloaded he LEM’s guidance computer. Suddenly they found themselves facing a 1202 alarm. And then a 1201 alarm. No one knew what the alarms meant until back room guidance engineers were able to advise that it was not a problem and the landing attempt could continue.

Armstrong took manual control of the LEM as he and Aldrin looked for a safe place to land. All the while their fuel was dropping dangerously low. Finally they found a spot. A contact probe touched the surface. Armstrong killed the engine, and he and Aldrin immediately conducted a series of post-landing checklist items. Finally, Armstrong flicked the comms switch. “Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

After a crew rest period, the LEM was depressurised, and the hatch opened. Neil Armstrong made his way down the ladder. Setting his left foot on the lunar surface he said, “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”

The goal set by President Kennedy eight years earlier was half complete. Aldrin joined him the the moon’s surface and for the next two and half hours the pair went through the series of tasks and experiments they were scheduled to complete, before returning to the Eagle and preparing to blast of for rendezvous with Collins orbiting above them in the Command Module, Columbia. As they prepared for lift off they discovered that in their builky pressure suits they had broken the ignition switch for the ascent engine. They shoved a part of a pen into the circuit breaker and started the launch sequence to head home.

He resigned from NASA in 1971, and joined the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati until 1979. He also served on the accident investigation committees of the Apollo 13 and Challenger accidents. Humble to his core shied away from publicity and speaking engagements. His family described him as a reluctant hero.

Photographed at the Royal Society, London. March 2010.