While chiefly remembered for being the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong preferred to emphasise his technical background once stating: 'I am, and ever will be a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer'.
Apollo 11 crew member Michael Collins once remarked: "The most important qualification for a lunar astronaut was to have been born in 1930." Collins knew that any of a dozen astronauts were equally prepared to make that historic first attempt to land on the Moon, and it was pure luck that he happened to be assigned to that mission as pilot of the orbiting mothership. When it came to deciding who might be best to fly the lunar module as it skittered toward the unknown perils of the surface, Nasa's Astronaut Office invariably chose the calmest and most unflappable pilots. None were calmer than Neil Alden Armstrong.
Born on 5 August 1930 near Wapakoneta, Ohio, young Armstrong was always on the move because of his father's job as a roving Ohio state auditor. The quiet, reserved boy got a pilot's license before he could drive a car. He studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana, then flew 78 combat missions as a navy pilot during the Korean War. One sortie ended when his F9F Panther jet collided with a telephone pole behind enemy lines, shearing the tip off his right wing. He coaxed the wounded Panther into friendlier skies before ejecting.
Leaving the Navy in 1952, Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the forerunner of NASA, as a test pilot. He made seven flights in the X-15 suborbital rocket plane, reaching speeds of 6,400km/hr and climbing to more than 63km, the edge of space. Given a few more years, X-15 could have become a true spacecraft. An electrical "adaptive control system" mediated Armstrong's commands to the wing and tailplane hydraulics, and the small nose thrusters damping out the X-15's unpredictable roll motions. He encountered oscillations caused by feedback, and worked with ground experts to improve the system.
Bid for the Moon
This combined role, part pilot and part test engineer, was what Armstrong loved the most. Although he became an astronaut in 1962, this was not motivated by a fascination for the stars. In January that year, his two-year-old daughter Karen died of a brain tumour. Armstrong's grieving wife, Janet, was dismayed when her husband avoided the emotional turmoil and hid himself behind the walls of a new diversion: Nasa's bid for the Moon.
Because of his experiences aboard the X-15, Armstrong was given command of the two-seater Gemini 8 Earth-orbiting capsule in March 1966. With co-pilot David Scott, he performed the first space docking with an uncrewed Agena target vehicle. On undocking, the Gemini span out of control after a roll thruster jammed in the open position. The two men felt themselves slipping into unconsciousness as the roll rate increased. Armstrong disabled the main thrusters and switched to a smaller set intended for re-entry.
Both men were saved, although the partially crippled capsule had to be recalled to Earth immediately, with its test flight objectives unfulfilled. Instead of simply being relieved at his survival, Armstrong spent the next few months wondering if he could have done something to prolong the flight. His superiors did not share his frustration. Apollo's spidery lunar module promised to be even more difficult to fly. Furthermore, the Moon presented unknown hazards, such as rocks and craters. Armstrong's swift reflexes would be an asset, Nasa reckoned. Agency chiefs also noted his lack of ego. He was uninterested in fame or glory, and wanted only to fulfil his tasks in this new field of aerospace.
Where most of us would have itched to tell of our adventures in this glamorous profession, Armstrong was diffident. In May 1968, while training at Nasa's Manned Spacecraft Centre near Houston, Texas, he flew a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), a skeletal four-legged contraption balancing on the thrust from a turbofan jet engine mounted vertically, in simulation of a lunar module hovering on a rocket nozzle's plume. Small thrusters on four corners of the LLRV kept the machine in balance. When the thrusters' fuel pressure system abruptly failed, the LLRV tipped out of control. Armstrong ejected with seconds to spare before it smashed into the ground and exploded.
An hour later, he was indoors and back at his desk. Alan Bean, an astronaut who shared the same office, had no idea anything had happened until he went out for a coffee and heard about the drama. When Bean asked his office companion how he could just sit there without mentioning his narrow escape, Armstrong replied: "Well, I've got work to do."
Keep calm and carry on
Thirteen months later, Armstrong was similarly undramatic when he radioed Mission Control to explain alarming events in the final moments before Apollo 11's lunar touchdown on 20 July 1969. "Houston, that may have seemed like a long final phase, but the guidance computer was taking us into a crater with a large number of rocks."
He had needed precious extra seconds to hover above the surface and nudge the ship forward until he could find a safe place to land. Mission Control held its collective breath as Armstrong's fuel reserves ran dry. "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again." When he and fellow Moon walker Buzz Aldrin blasted off and rejoined Mike Collins in the orbiting command module at the end of their moon walk, Collins asked, "Were you really down to 20 seconds?"
"That's plenty of time," Armstrong replied.
Such inhuman calm was not unusual within Nasa. Most of the astronauts had been selected precisely because they did not allow their emotions to interfere with their technical judgements. Apollo's mission commanders were renowned for their icy composures, while co-pilots, who perhaps had more time to look out of the windows and speculate about the significance of their adventures, usually came home more affected by the grandeur of space. Aldrin found his life a let-down after the intensity of Apollo, and had a nervous breakdown a few years later, while Collins, a happier and more conversational man, wrote a book, 'Carrying the Fire'. They reacted like people, while Armstrong, on the surface at least, seemed like an unfeeling robot.
An earthly existence
In 1971 Armstrong left Nasa and became Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, where he remained for the rest of that decade, quietly teaching courses such as aircraft design and flight navigation.
Unlike Aldrin, he betrayed no inner turmoil, but he did, in fact, suffer emotional pain. He spent some years trying to repair his marriage with Janet. She could not forgive him his distance when she had needed him most. In the early 1990s he suffered the loss of his parents, experienced the fright of a mild heart attack, and mourned the failure of his marriage as Janet divorced him. By 1994, he was remarried to Carol Knight, who seemed not to mind his quiet nature.The public learned nothing of these peaks and troughs in his earthly existence.
Ron Huston, a Mechanics professor at the University of Cincinnati knew Armstrong quite well. "His students found him kind and gentle, businesslike, with a dry sense of <'humor, and an eagerness to help." The only'annoyance was when students "stood on each other's shoulders to peer in at the celebrity through a window near the ceiling.'To prevent this we had to cover the'window. It soon became clear that we needed to protect him from other similar incidents".
Huston thinks that Armstrong's refusal to accept fame was based on decency. "He viewed himself as an ordinary person. He understood that the Moon landing was the result of the long, hard work of many people. Someone had to be the first to step out onto the surface. It could have been any of the astronauts. He did not want to leave the impression that he did it all on his own."
This avoidance of celebrity status annoyed many American tax payers who felt that, having funded Armstrong's mission, they were entitled to hear him talk about it. A typically brief reply to a media request was received by the Cincinnati Post a few years ago, politely denying an interview. "I am comfortable with my level of public discourse," he wrote, from the safety of his retirement on a livestock farm in Warren County, Ohio. Fellow farmers thought him a generous and reliable contributor to his local community. In that rural setting, it was easy to avoid talk of Apollo. Only his Beechcraft Baron plane, waiting on a nearby airstrip, hinted at his earlier life.
After avoiding the limelight for three decades, he finally relented to a series of interviews with Auburn University historian James Hansen for a 2005 biography, 'First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong'. Even this was only approved because of Hansen's interest in aerospace rather than the trivia (as Armstrong saw it) of personalities. Hansen says: "His refusal to engage with the public created a vacuum that was filled by conspiracy theories and crazy rumours. One story has it that he became a Muslim." Armstrong just wanted to get on with his life. "How long must it take before I can cease to be known as a spaceman?" he asked, when the book was released. "We'd all like to be recognised not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work."
Armstrong's most public role since stepping onto the Moon was as a member of the Rogers Commission, the inquiry into the Challenger space shuttle disaster of January 1986. He made a few appearances to mark the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 in the summer of 2009. He looked uncomfortable, and kept his remarks polite and short. Perhaps most startlingly, in September last year he criticised President Obama's space policy in uncharacteristically sharp terms. He berated the cancellation of Nasa's planned return to the Moon and the failure to ensure a new craft to replace the retired shuttles. "We will have no American access to low Earth orbit," he warned the US Congress. "For a country that has invested so much to achieve a leadership position in space, this is lamentably embarrassing."
So Armstrong, the ice-cool commander, did have passions. They lay with his family, his sons, the indelible memory of his little daughter, in farming and community duty, and in the dangerous, pioneering aerospace craft (200 types in all) that he tested and flew. He was the best example of a new breed who emerged in the late 1950s, part action man and part systems engineer. He thrived at a time when pilots had to learn systems management for a new age of human-machine interfaces and fly-by-wire cockpits. The public found such men as clinical as their machines, but any fellow engineer who struck up a serious conversation with them would have understood their hidden enthusiasms. If a man such as Armstrong says very little, or seems agonisingly shy in public, this does not mean that he lacks emotion. It's just that his feelings are best expressed in the fulfilment of his trade.
Seven years ago, while taking part in an exceptionally rare television interview for '60 Minutes' on CBS, Armstrong climbed into a glider. No one but his closest friends and family knew about his expertise with this most gentle of unpowered aircraft. Footage shows him in the graceful plane, swooping effortlessly through the air, "getting as close as you can to being a bird" and "trying to do more than you thought you could".