Today marks the 40th anniversary of our first steps beyond the Earth. For almost anyone alive on July 20, 1969, man’s first words from the moon and first steps on the moon are flashbulb events. We remember clearly—as if it were moments ago—where we were when we heard, “Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed,” and later that day, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” The phrases are etched, immortalized in our minds.
Over time, memory of that event is interspersed with others in a kind of NASA jumble—words and images that are interconnected yet disassociated: Sputnik; Yuri Gagarin; Alan Shepard; John Glenn; the Apollo fire; “Houston, we have a problem”; “Challenger go at throttle up”; the y-shaped cloud; and the image of a faceless, shiny space helmet reflecting the surface of the moon.
Over the decades, beginning with the Apollo era but transcending it in duration and scientific data, unmanned robotic vehicles—the Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo and Magellan probes, as well as Martian landers Viking, Pathfinder and Phoenix, have brought us profound insights into our solar neighborhood. But without a human presence on board, the dramatic scientific and technical accomplishments of those missions are often forgotten. For many, they never even register. Without the emotional connection to a fellow human “out there,” these other great moments in human exploration have low mental “stickiness.”
But the greater human endeavor illustrated by the space program—the need to search and understand that is common to all humankind—is always worth thinking about. We continue to ask, as King David asked in the Psalms, what is the connection between ourselves and the universe: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3–4, English Standard Version).
Understanding the physical details of the moon and the stars is one step toward an answer to the bigger questions; but more insight comes from understanding man. Looking at the life of the man who made that first small step on the moon’s surface provides a window into mankind—who we all are and why anyone should care.
Neil Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930, in his grandparents’ Ohio farmhouse. In an echo of the biblical story of Hannah and her firstborn son Samuel, when Neil’s mother Viola found out she was pregnant, she fell on her knees and “thanked God with all [her] heart.” Promising to teach the child, records biographer James R. Hansen, “the very best way I knew how” and “to give him back to God to use him as He saw fit,” she prayed that the baby would “grow up to be a good and useful person.”
Viola says Neil was “a serene and untroubled baby,” and Hansen notes that “family photos captured the boy’s tendency towards shyness”—not what one expects from a boy whose name means Champion in Gaelic, the language of their family ancestry. Certainly the fact that the family moved 16 times during the first 14 years of Neil’s life may have contributed to his reticence.
Like his mother, Neil was a voracious reader with an understanding well beyond his years. He was consumed with learning. “The way mother treated him fostered a high level of self-confidence,” notes his sister, June. His brother Dean adds that Neil didn’t display anger and tended to avoid confrontation, but “I don’t think he ‘scared’ that much.”
For Neil, rural Ohio represented comfort, security, privacy and sane values. “Mother thrived on goodness,” Neil said. “She always wanted us to be good.” A high school friend remembers Neil as a “person of few words” who “thought before he spoke.” These character traits and his quiet confidence would serve him well as he moved from green Ohio to the lunar plains of Tranquility Base. But first he had to make the move from the ground up to the air.
Hansen writes of this transitional time in Armstrong’s life. “In the quiet congenial world of the series of midwestern towns that amounted to the truest Tranquility Base he would ever know . . . he prepared to meet the world. He would dare risking his peace and comfort on something he discovered there. That ‘something’ was flying.” Skipping Sunday school without his mother’s knowledge, Neil took his first plane ride with his father when he was 6 years old. This spurred an interest in model airplanes that blossomed into career plans. “While I was still in elementary school my intention was to be or—hope was to be—an aircraft designer,” he told Hansen. “I later went into piloting, because I thought a good designer ought to know operational aspects of an airplane.”
Leaving model airplanes behind, he began saving for flying lessons. At only 40 cents per hour, Neil had to work 22 1/2 hours to pay for a single lesson. Like a kid doing odd jobs in a bowling alley to get free games, he hung around Wapakoneta Airfield and over time learned to work on airplane engines. Viola told Hansen, “For everything he did they gave him flying lessons.”
Armstrong earned his pilot’s license before he got his automobile driver’s license. His father later reported that Neil “never had a girl [and he] didn’t need a car. All he had to do was get out to that airport.”
In 1947 Armstrong attended Purdue University because of its superior aeronautical engineering program. However, the family lacked the funds to pay for a four-year education, so he attended Purdue by enlisting in the Navy and taking advantage of the government’s education program. The program required three years of active service between the sophomore and junior years of college. In 1949 he was called to active duty.
A year later the Korean War broke out. In all, Armstrong flew 78 missions, but the most harrowing was in September 1951. In combat over North Korea, his time almost ran out. Richard P. Hallion, historian of military aviation, gives an account of the incident:
“As the Essex Panther strafed a column of trucks near Wonsan, flack knocked the jet into a spinning dive. In its cockpit, the young fighter pilot instinctively regained control over the hurtling plane, recovering into level flight a mere twenty feet off the ground. The Panther immediately collided with a telephone pole, clipping three feet from its right wing. Again the pilot managed to regain control, and he staggered back up to 14,000 feet, reaching friendly territory before ejecting safely. Two days later, Ensign Armstrong returned to VF-51.”
Unfortunately this is unnecessarily dramatized, according to Hansen, an “invention of Naval Aviation News.” The accurate story appears to be that Armstrong hit a cable intended as a booby-trap during a bombing run, lost about 6-feet of one wing, and bailed out over the Sea of Japan. Wind currents carried him inland where he landed in a rice paddy and was met, amazingly, by a former flight-school roommate in a jeep.
Returning to Purdue University in 1952, Armstrong met Janet Shearon. They would marry four years later and have three children: Rick, Karen (“Muffie”) and Mark. While at Purdue, he watched with the world as Navy test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier flying an experimental aircraft. For Armstrong, this era of flight dawned bittersweet, as it seemed aviation’s best days had passed him by. “All in all for someone who was immersed in, fascinated by, and dedicated to flight, I was disappointed by the wrinkle in history that had brought me along one generation late,” he wrote. “I had missed all the great times and adventures in flight.”
But over the next few years aviation would turn to aerospace. During Armstrong’s final years at Purdue in the Aeronautical Engineering Program, he witnessed the development of hypersonic wind tunnels capable of Mach 5 speeds, the revolutionary new designs of V-2 missiles, surface-to-air antiballistic missile systems, and pressurized flight suits for high-altitude flying.
A Death in the Family
In 1954 Armstrong became a civilian experimental research pilot with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Cleveland, Ohio. Later relocating to Edwards Air force Base in California, he began working with NASA and flew the X-15 to 207,000 feet. “[He] was always happier when he was flying—he was not a desk job person,” Janet later told Hansen. Thanks to the movie The Right Stuff, most people believe, inaccurately, that Chuck Yeager was the first man to fly an airplane to the edge of space. In fact, it was Armstrong and his fellow X-15 test pilots who can claim that honor.
Tragedy struck when the Armstrongs’ 2-year-old daughter Karen Anne (“Muffie”) died of a malignant brain tumor on their sixth wedding anniversary. Emotionally stoic and test-pilot hardened, Armstrong did not allow his emotions to overcome him, apparently using work as a crutch to fill in the emotional void and push the pain to arm’s length. “I thought his heart would break,” his sister June relates. “That’s when he started into the space program.” And several months later in 1962, Armstrong submitted his name for astronaut selection. He officially joined the astronaut ranks on September 17, 1962, as a member of the second group following the initial Mercury 7 in 1959. (His fellow Apollo 11 crew mates, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, were members of the third group selected in October 1963.)
In some fashion Armstrong packaged away his loss as he continued the astronaut training program. Prior to the moon landing, he served as Gemini VIII command pilot for a half-day mission in March 1966. That flight was aborted when a malfunctioning thruster spun the capsule up to a dizzying 500 rpm.
As commander for Apollo 11, Armstrong had the responsibility for landing the Lunar Module (LEM). Guided by both computer data and directions from pilot Aldrin to his right, Armstrong maneuvered the craft across an unexpected rock-strewn landscape to what could have been anything but a successful landing. The LEM moves in a feet-first, windows-up configuration; thus, so do the astronauts. It is only in the last few moments that the craft pitches forward so the commander can see the terrain ahead. Without the human element, the craft’s autopilot would likely have dismembered the spindly four-legged machine among the boulders, if it could have landed at all.
Under Armstrong’s guidance, the LEM continued down. He and Aldrin flew on through general computer overload warnings while seeking a clear spot to put down. Armstrong later said that because “nothing was jiggering or acting erratic” from his pilot’s point of view, his “inclination was just to keep going ahead as long as everything looked like it was fine.” Then NASA ground controllers called up another distraction. “Thirty seconds” is the phrase heard; many believe this to be Aldrin noting the estimated time until touchdown. Actually, it was the time left before their fuel ran out.
When the call finally came down from Armstrong, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” the reply—“Thanks . . . you got us breathing again”—takes on its fuller context. No one really cared that they had missed hitting the predetermined landing site exactly. “Anyway,” Armstrong said later, “it wasn’t a big deal as to exactly where we were going to set down. There wasn’t going to be any welcoming committee there anyway.”
About 5½ hours later at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Time, Armstrong stepped on the moon. Although his image was a fuzzy black and white, his words were clear, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and we have remembered them as such ever since. His later notation that he said the “a” as well is a bit of trivia lost to personal and collective memory.
After their four-day transit, Armstrong and Aldrin walked the moon for 151 minutes collecting rocks and setting up instruments to be left behind and monitored from Earth. The next day they rendezvoused with Collins in the orbiting Command Module, blasted out of orbit, and splashed down in the Pacific on the morning of July 24. The three were quarantined against the possibility of having contracted a moon germ until August 10. No one became ill. Apollo 11’s 34 pounds (15 kg) of rock and soil samples were the first of 836 total pounds the program would eventually bring back for study. No signs of life have been found.
Life After NASA
After Apollo 11 Armstrong continued to work with NASA but became frustrated by requests from NASA, congress, and the White House for “appearances on demand.” For a man who reveled in the thoughtfulness of engineering and the challenges of real-world flying and test-piloting, Armstrong found coming home to celebrity disconcerting. “It was a real burden,” he says. “I didn’t have a choice.” Although he says he was a bit late in taking up Charles Lindbergh’s admonition to never give autographs, his continuing quest for privacy earned him the nickname Lunar Lindbergh. “I’d be harassed all the time if I weren’t reclusive,” he says.
For the next decade, Armstrong rattled from place to place, never touching down in the tranquility of a quiet life. In 1971 he left NASA to teach at the University at Cincinnati but left in 1979 because of “lots of new rules,” which he found burdensome. Corporate concerns became his primary focus for the rest of his professional life. “I am,” he says, “and ever will be a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer. And I take substantial pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
While no one can blame Armstrong for his reluctance to endure the glare of the public spotlight, his reticence to forcefully promote human advancement in space certainly gave the stage over to those voices calling for budget savings. The Apollo program came to an end in 1972 with Apollo 17. Armstrong was able to do everything expected of a pilot and engineer: he was a technical success. But after the mission, he could not do what was needed most: be the “everyman” who could push mankind’s quest forward.
Calling it a “triumph that failed,” New York Times reporter John N. Wilford echoes this sentiment. Although the moon landing was technically magnificent, “because of misdirected expectations and a general misperception of its real meaning,” Wilford says, Apollo 11 was seen as the destination rather than just the beginning. “The public was encouraged to view it only as the grand climax of the space program, a geopolitical horse race and extraterrestrial entertainment—not as a dramatic means to the greater end of developing a far-ranging spacefaring capability. This led to the space program’s post-Apollo slump.”
Speaking at the 200th anniversary of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, Armstrong compared the early settlers’ westward drive to man’s trip to the moon. “The need to build a new world is what lifts man’s horizons in search of the future. Without these horizons, a man turns inward and is concerned only with himself. With them, he thinks more about tomorrow than today, more about society than himself.”
So what kind of a world has humankind built? Technologically, we have accomplished awesome feats, yet as individuals we are constrained by inner demons that plague and prevent us from solving some of our oldest problems.
Governments compete against one another to be the first to land on the moon, Mars and beyond, but do little to moderate and deconstruct the competitive urges that drive the race.
Humankind’s great tragic quality is our reluctance to take one small step toward right relationships with others. Despite our impressive technological capacities, suspicion and hatred cloud our best interpersonal intentions; we may claim that “we come in peace,” but the possibility of a weaponized space cannot be ignored today, just as it could not 50 years ago. How little things change in the human realm.
Neil Armstrong represents all of us; he exemplifies the human strength to overcome setbacks and adversities and continue forward. But when the mission is over, there remains a void. As STS-125 Commander Scott Altman told Vision, while today’s astronauts stand on the shoulders of those who pioneered the way before, they feel some jealousy for what the next generation will have the opportunity to accomplish. There is a bittersweet yearning for the unknown that will come next.
Wanting something more is a feeling that runs as deep today as it did in King David’s day. Yet human strength alone will not carry us as far as Psalm 8 promises; as annotated by the apostle Paul, we will have access in ways we cannot yet imagine. One day, when the time is right, even the universe will be at our command: “all things in subjection under his feet” (Hebrews 2:5–8, emphasis added).
It’s in man’s nature to be inquisitive, to want the universe. But without the character and wisdom to harness our ambitions, the new world we seek will look no different than the one we've left behind.