I was once lucky enough to see Neil Armstrong in person. I shared the room with a few thousand other people as Mr Armstrong took to the stage for a Lotusphere opening session a few years back, but for me it was a deeply personal moment – seeing the man I’d read about in so many books about the Apollo missions. A man I admired greatly, who I’d have loved to have spent even just five minutes talking to one-on-one. One word stands out in my mind – ‘modest’. Armstrong, speaking about the lunar mirror which to this day is used to reflect laser pulses between the Earth and Moon, described himself as just the guy who installed it (I don’t remember the exact words, he may have described himself as the engineer who installed it). He also pointed out that landing on the Moon was not just an achievement for himself and Buzz Aldrin, but for thousands of other people working on the hardware, software, equipment, vehicles and procedures.
Armstrong’s position as the man destined to take those first steps on the Moon really came by chance – the rotation of crews, and the success and failure of aspects of the earlier Gemini and Apollo missions, meant that it could have been any one of a number of people in the astronaut program. It was also said that it would have been better for public relations if it had been someone else, like the exuberant Pete Conrad or the more amiable Jim Lovell. Armstrong was a deeply private man and the Lotusphere session, hearing him talk about the Apollo mission, was a rare treat. Armstrong’s reluctance to discuss mission details infuriated the journalist Norman Mailer who stated:
[Armstrong] surrendered words about as happily as a hound allowed meat to be pulled out of his teeth.
Mailer also described Armstrong as “extraordinarily remote”. This, however, was extraordinarily unfair – Mailer’s complaint arose from a press conference on 5th July 1969, less than two weeks before the launch of Apollo 11. Armstrong was incredibly focused and had been spending weeks in simulated missions, and dealing with an increasing number of curve-balls that the instructors were throwing at the crew. It was Armstrong’s focus, his quiet reserve, and cool and collected nature that made him the perfect commander for the first Moon landing. As anyone who has ever studied the landing transcripts will know, Armstrong piloted the Eagle to safety in the midst of continued computer alarms and diminishing fuel reserves while navigating over unfavourable landing sites.
Armstrong had displayed his unflappable nature years earlier – in 1951, after being hit by anti-aircraft fire and losing part of a wing during the Korean War, he had flown his stricken plane back into friendly territory before ejecting. Years later, during Apollo lander testing, he narrowly avoided serious injury by ejecting from an unstable prototype, yet he continued to test the prototypes against the wishes of NASA because they provided the best learning experience.
Armstrong’s personal life was blighted by tragedy – in 1962 his three year old daughter, Karen, died of a brain tumour. In 1964 a fire ripped though the Armstrong family home – his neighbour and close friend Ed White helped to tackle the blaze and get the family to safety. White died in the Apollo 1 tragedy in 1967.
It was Armstrong’s years of experience as a test pilot that brought him to the space program, even though he submitted his application form two weeks after the deadline. Like most of the astronauts, he was not just a guy who rode a rocket – he was deeply involved in the development of many facets of the Gemini and Apollo programs and strived for continual improvements. As a test pilot he was skilled in his analysis of experiences in the planes he flew, and he took these skills through to Apollo. Like Buzz (who was the greatest pioneer of the docking procedures and technology) Armstrong was an engineer and was a scientist, in his own way. Chance could have determined that someone else had taken those first steps on the Moon, but inevitably it was Armstrong whose quiet, commanding nature ensured that he was the right man with the right stuff. The names of people involved in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs read like a roll-call of some of the most fascinating and dedicated individuals in history, and it’s only right that Neil Armstrong’s name is remembered as one of the greatest.