Neil Alden Armstrong

The American astronaut Neil Alden Armstrong (born 1930) was the first person to walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930, near Wapakoneta, Ohio, the eldest of three children of Stephen and Viola Engel Armstrong. Airplanes drew his interest from the age of six, when he took his first flight, and on his 16th birthday he was issued a pilot's license. A serious pilot even at this age, Armstrong built a small wind tunnel in the basement of his home and performed experiments on the model planes he had made.

Years of Training

Armstrong entered Purdue University in 1947 with a U.S. Navy scholarship. After two years of study he was called to active duty with the Navy and won his jet wings at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. At 20 he was the youngest pilot in his squadron. He flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War and won three Air Medals.

Armstrong returned to Purdue and completed a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955. He immediately accepted a job with the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in Cleveland, Ohio. A year later he married Janet Shearon.


An Aeronautical Career

Shortly afterward, Armstrong transferred to the NACA High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Here he became a skilled test pilot and flew the early models of such jet aircraft as the F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-5D, and B-47. He also flew a B-29 "drop plane," from which various types of rocket-propelled planes were launched. More important for his later role, he became a pilot of the X-1B rocket plane, an earlier version of which had been the first plane to break the sound barrier.

Armstrong was selected as one of the first three pilots of NACA for the X-15 rocket plane, and he made seven flights in this prototype spacecraft. Once he set a record altitude of 207,500 feet and a speed of 3,989 miles per hour. Armstrong received an invitation from the American space-flight program, but he demonstrated little enthusiasm for becoming an astronaut. His real love was piloting. Largely because of his experience with the X-15, he was selected as a pilot of the Dynasoar, an experimental craft that could leave the atmosphere, orbit earth, reenter the atmosphere, and land like a conventional airplane.


Astronautics: A Step into Space

In 1962, however, sensing that the days of the projected Dynasoar were numbered (it was canceled in 1963), Armstrong decided to become an astronaut and applied for selection and training. In September 1962 he became America's first civilian astronaut and moved to Houston, Texas, to begin training. Armstrong's attitude toward his job, at least prior to his first space mission, was summed up in a statement to a reporter in 1965: "I rule out the possibility of agreeing to go up if I thought I might not come back, unless it were technically indispensable. Dying in space or on the moon is not technically indispensable and consequently if I had to choose between death while testing a jet and death on the moon, I'd choose death while testing a jet."

Armstrong's first flight assignment as an astronaut was as backup, or alternate, command pilot for Gordon Cooper of the Gemini 5 mission. Armstrong continued his specialized training on the Gemini spacecraft and was selected as the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission. With copilot David Scott he was launched from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral), Florida, on March 16, 1966. The Gemini 8 achieved orbit and docked as planned with the Agena vehicle, but shortly afterward the vehicle went out of control. Armstrong detached his craft from the Agena, corrected the malfunction, and brought the Gemini down in the Pacific Ocean only 1.1 nautical miles from the planned landing point. His cool and professional conduct made a strong impression on the officials of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Armstrong continued his intensive training on the Gemini spacecraft and was selected as the backup command pilot for the Gemini 11 mission, which was flown, however, by astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., and Richard Gordon.

As the training for the Apollo program got under way, it was obvious that Armstrong rated high among those being considered for the important role of being the first American on the moon. He undertook his training program with the same cool, analytical, and almost detached approach that had always marked his attitude to flying.

During a routine training flight on the lunar landing research vehicle, a training device that permits astronauts to maneuver a craft in a flight environment similar to that in landing on the moon, Armstrong's craft went out of control. He ejected himself and landed by parachute only yards away from the training vehicle, which had crashed in flames. With his usual imperturbability he walked away and calmly made his report. Again, his behavior and attitude were noted by those who were evaluating candidates for the first crew to the moon.


Selection for the Moon Mission

In January 1969 Armstrong was selected as commander for Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission. On July 16 at 9:32 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), Armstrong, together with astronauts Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, aboard the Saturn 5 space booster.

Apollo 11 passed into the gravitational influence of the moon on July 18 and circled the moon twice. Armstrong and Aldrin entered the lunar module, named the Eagle, which then disconnected from the command and service module. As they descended toward the lunar surface, their computer became overloaded, but under continuous instructions from the mission control center at Houston, Armstrong continued the gradual touchdown. Suddenly a boulder field loomed in front of him. He quickly switched to manual control and guided the Eagle over it to a smooth landing with only 10 seconds of fuel left. At 4:17:40 P.M. EDT on July 20, a major portion of the earth population was listening to Armstrong's transmission, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." At 10:56 P.M. he set foot on the moon, saying, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." (Later, he stated that he had intended to say, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.")

Armstrong and Aldrin spent nearly two and a half hours walking on the moon. Armstrong reported: "The surface is fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers like powdered charcoal to the soles and sides of my boots. I only go in a fraction of an inch, may be an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots." The astronauts deployed various scientific instruments on the moon's surface, including a seismograph and solar-wind particle collector, and collected rock and soil samples. They also left a mission patch and medals commemorating American and Russian space explorers who had died in the line of duty, along with a plaque reading, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. We came in peace for all mankind."

Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the Eagle and launched themselves to rendezvous with Collins, who had been orbiting in the Columbia spacecraft. On July 24 Columbia returned to earth. It splashed down at 12:50 P.M. EDT some 950 miles southwest of Hawaii and only 2.7 miles from its aiming point. After 18 days of quarantine to control any lunar microorganisms, Armstrong and the others traveled around the world for parades and speeches. The mission brought honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Harmon International Aviation Trophy, the Royal Geographic Society's Hubbard Gold Medal, and accolades from many nations. Armstrong became a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, the American Astronautical Society, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.


Career after NASA

Apollo 11 was Armstrong's final space mission. He joined Nasa's Office of Advanced Research and Technology, where he served as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics. One of his main priorities in this position was to further research into controlling high-performance aircraft by computer. In 1970 he earned a master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.

A private man, Armstrong rejected most opportunities to profit from his fame. He left NASA in 1971 and moved his family back to Ohio to accept a position at the University of Cincinnati. There he spent seven years engaged in teaching and research as a professor of aerospace engineering. He took special interest in the application of space technology to such challenges as improving medical devices and providing data on the environment. In 1978 Armstrong was one of the first six recipients of the congressional Space Medal of Honor, created to recognize astronauts whose "exceptionally meritorious efforts" had contributed to "the welfare of the Nation and mankind."

A member of the board of directors of Gates Learjet Corporation, in 1979 he piloted that company's new business jet to five world-altitude and time-to-climb records for that class of aircraft. Other boards Armstrong served on included those of USCX Corporation and United Airlines. In between his business ventures and such hobbies as fishing and sail-planing, he also chaired the board of trustees of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History.

Armstrong did accept two further government appointments. In 1984 he was named to the National Commission on Space, which two years later completed a report outlining an ambitious future for American space programs. Also in 1986, Armstrong was named deputy chair of the Rogers Commission to investigate the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The commission's work resulted in major changes in NASA's management structure and safety practices.

From 1980 to 1982, Armstrong was chair of the board of Cardwell International. He accepted a similar post with Computing Technologies for Aviation (CTA) in 1982. CTA, which was based in Charlottesville, Virginia, provided software for flight scheduling and support activities, allowing corporate jet operators to maximize the efficient use of their aircraft. Armstrong stepped down as head of CTA in 1993. He later presided over the board of AIL Systems, Inc., an electronic systems company headquartered in Deer Park, New York.

In May 1997 Armstrong was named a director at Ohio National Financial Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based provider of diversified financial services. At that time, he also served on the boards of Cinergy Corp. and Cincinnati Milacron Inc. He maintained his residence at a farm near Lebanon, Ohio, and made occasional public appearances in nearby Wapakoneta, his boyhood home and the site of the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum.


Further Reading on Neil Alden Armstrong

Information on Armstrong's historic participation in the space program is contained in Chris Crocker, Great American Astronauts (1988), Buzz Aldrin and Malcolm McConnell, Men from Earth (1989), and Alan B. Shepard, Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon (1994). Armstrong, together with Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, wrote a memoir of the Apollo 11 moon voyage in First on the Moon (1970).