August 3, 2010
Neil Armstrong, Eighty This Week. An Appreciation
For over half of his life now, Neil Armstrong has gracefully enjoyed and endured the appellation "First Man on the Moon." And, although his popularity is currently way below the likes of Lady Gaga (whoever that is), it can be reasonably argued that over the next millennia, when the history of the Twentieth Century is written, his name will stand out over all others. When the Obamas, Stalins, and Churchills have gone the way of just so many Caesars and Pharaohs of old, when the great movements and wars are forgotten, Neil Armstrong's name will live on, not for who he was, but for what he did. And, as with so many of the great, his attributes will probably be appreciated far more after he is gone.
A son of an Ohio state government worker, Armstrong enjoyed a comfortable small-town Depression upbringing distinguished only by an unusual passion for flight. He took to flying at a young age, earning his pilot's license at sixteen, he joined the Navy, and flew Panther jets from aircraft carriers by the time he was twenty. A member of the famous "Screaming Eagles" all-jet Fighter Squadron 51, he flew hazardous combat missions over North Korea and China. Armstrong was one of the few to make over 100 carrier landings, his squadron's exploits were later dramatized in the William Holden feature "The Bridges Over Toko-Ri."
Returning to Purdue University after Korea to finish his degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955, civilian Armstrong was recruited to pilot and test the newly developed experimental rockets and jets at Edwards Air Base in California. Contemporary of the celebrated and colorful Chuck Yeager, test pilot Armstrong set records for speed and altitude with a quiet workman-like demeanor that was to characterize his entire professional life. Brushing the edge of space at 207,500 feet in the X-15 hypersonic aircraft, Armstrong tested the limits of aerodynamics miles above the western desert just as Sputnik was rocking the scientific (and political) world.
Assigned to the now largely forgotten Dyna-Soar project, which developed airplane-like space vehicles and competed with early NASA rocketry like that used in Project Mercury, Armstrong remained active and busy as "pilot-engineer" while the space race heated up. To the surprise of many of his friends and co-workers, he applied for the second group of openings for NASA's growing astronaut corps in 1962, after Kennedy's call for a moon landing "before the decade was out." Selected as the very first civilian astronaut, he trained with the extraordinary group of nine men who joined the legendary "Right Stuff" Original Seven astronauts; men of the highest caliber, (names every schoolchild should know, but alas, does not,) -intelligent, educated, fearless, and destined for challenges of the highest order, triumphs, disasters and death: Lovell, White, Borman, Conrad, Young, See, Stafford, and McDivitt.
Named commander of Gemini VIII, Armstrong gained repute for his coolness under pressure when his malfunctioning capsule began turning end-over-end at a sickeningly and dangerously fast rate after the first successful docking of spacecraft in orbit. Aborting the mission after bringing the spacecraft to safety, a depressed Armstrong dismissed any hint that his actions were heroic, regretting the missed opportunities, focused as he was on the mission and the consequences to Project Gemini and its follow-up, Project Apollo.
Of the moon mission, and the drama over landing at Tranquility Base, as Buzz Aldrin coolly counted down the fuel readings while Armstrong piloted the Lunar Module over boulders and craters, more is known. The entire world watched as history unfolded that July night in 1969; the dramatic landing, the other-worldly television show, the snowy black and white picture revealing two Americans bouncing along the lunar surface and speaking to Nixon via telephone. The nation, the world, was thrilled and inspired, and then, as always, moved on to the ephemeral and mundane, and, ultimately, forgot.
After the ticker-tape parades and banquets and public honors across the globe, Armstrong moved on to what many consider the most exemplary part of his life. For the unique contribution of the first man on the moon may not lie in his courage or his resourcefulness or his patriotism, but rather in his bearing and dignity over forty plus years of exposure and fame.
In 1971, after retiring from NASA, Armstrong began teaching Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He avoided offers from many businesses to act as spokesman until Chrysler, in financial difficulties and backed by a loan from the federal government, successfully approached him to advertise its renewed commitment to automotive engineering excellence. Subsequently, he quietly served on the boards of several companies, and was asked to serve on the Rogers Commission investigating the Challenger Shuttle disaster in 1986. Much of his time has been spent avoiding the spotlight and preserving his name, image and reputation.
In his private life he has known great happiness and great struggle. Losing his two-year old daughter to a rare brain cancer in 1961, and divorcing his wife after 38 years of marriage, the trials of his profession have left scars. "Most of my adult life," he said, "has been spent saying goodbye to friends and colleagues." He suffered a heart attack in 1991 and recovered to find a new bride in 1994. "Retired" in 2002, Armstrong celebrates his 80th birthday today.
Perhaps the modern world, and especially modern America, enjoys creating celebrities and heroes out of nothing almost as much as tearing them down. A man like Neil Armstrong, a hero of deeds and courage and character, stands out as a rarity to say the least. How lucky we are that the person chosen by fate to be the first to walk on the moon was such a man.