Column: Remembering the man and the mission

Jul. 20, 2014 @ 06:41 AM

In 1961, President John Kennedy made his famous address to Congress announcing his aspiration to put men on the moon and return them to Earth by the end of the decade. The Soviet Union had previously launched an unmanned rocket and sent a man into orbit. Slowly, the United States caught the Russians in the space race. NASA organized three successive programs that eventually placed Americans on the moon

One of the only civilians chosen as an astronaut was Neil Armstrong.

He was born in 1930, took his first flying lesson with his dad at age 6, and by age 15 was taking individual lessons. In 1947, he entered Purdue University on a Navy JROTC scholarship, but his schooling was interrupted by the Korean War. As a combat pilot, he flew 78 missions and lost two planes. Armstrong always seemed cool under pressure. While some mistook this calmness as arrogance, the character of the man proved to be an amazing dividend during preparation and training for one of the greatest adventures of all time.

By 1952, Armstrong returned to Purdue, but soon turned his attention to flying experimental planes at a California test site. All told, he flew more than 200 types of air and spacecraft during his lifetime. He became an excellent test pilot and aeronautical engineer, pursuing a master's degree in engineering while working on his test runs.

In January 1969, the Apollo 11 mission astronauts were chosen. Armstrong captained the mission headed to the moon. They knew they were launching in pieces of machinery that could fail. They also knew they had only one shot at making history at the time. And they proceeded.

Half a billion people watched the amazing story unfold on television in 1969. The event was the culminating work of nearly 400,000 people who managed to construct, test, and practice procedures that ultimately made it possible for Americans to land on the moon. On July 16, the astronauts boarded a Saturn V rocket. There were 54,000 moving parts between the rocket, the lunar orbiter (Columbia) and the lunar module (Eagle). Many on the ground in Mission Control figured 10 percent of the moving parts would fail during the mission; yet, they agreed to move forward.

By July 19, at 1:28 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Apollo 11 entered the moon’s orbit. After a full day in orbit, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin positioned themselves in the lunar module and prepared the descent toward the moon’s surface. Astronaut Michael Collins stayed with the orbiter.

At 4:17 p.m. EST on July 20, the lunar module, described by the astronauts as no bigger than a closet, touched down on the moon and those very famous words were announced to the world, “Engine arm is off. Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Six hours later, Armstrong and Aldrin exited the lunar module and became the first human beings to set foot on the surface of the moon. With 600 million people watching and listening, Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Thousands of people had written to NASA and Armstrong the year before the moon landing to give suggestions as to what should be said at the moment man walked on the surface. Armstrong decided on the phrase. Some, including Armstrong, say he really said, “That’s one small step for a man.” In 2006, the audio was analyzed to see if the phrase could be accurately pinpointed, but was found to be inconclusive.

After collecting nearly 46 pounds of moon rocks and talking by phone with President Nixon, Armstrong and Aldrin rejoined Collins in lunar orbit on July 21. Three days later, Columbia touched down in the Pacific Ocean. The explorers were home; man’s greatest journey complete.

Following the mission, Armstrong stayed on with NASA until 1970. He assisted in other missions that put 10 more astronauts on the moon. In 1986, following the Challenger explosion, he was appointed vice chairman of the presidential committee investigating the space shuttle tragedy.

Before his death in August 2012, he joined former NASA astronauts on tours to visit American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Journalists covering the tour noted his calmness and commitment to the mission.

When he died, Life magazine published an edition dedicated to his accomplishments. Fellow astronaut Jim Lovell wrote the forward. In it, he says of Armstrong, “In spite of it all, he remained a humble man and used his fame not for personal gain but to contribute to the legacy of America and the world.”

Heroes often get caught up in their own fame. People who knew Armstrong noted his capacity to credit others while not exploiting his own efforts: such a great lesson from a unique American leader.