One final step for a reluctant hero
NEIL ARMSTRONG, the first of 12 Americans to walk on the moon between 1969 and 1972, died of complications following heart surgery in his native Ohio on Saturday. He was 82.
The first man on the moon was one of those rare beings gifted with a destiny that seemed to surpass his identity. Nine years and seven months after president John F Kennedy promised that the United States would land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth “before the decade is out”, Armstrong enthralled hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world, and gave the US final victory in its space race with the Soviet Union.
The moon walk, on July 20th, 1969, was the symbolic culmination of a decade that saw JFK’s election and assassination, the Civil Rights movement, cultural revolution and descent into the quagmire of Vietnam.
Most of the world’s population was not even born when Armstrong achieved his historic feat, and by the time he died 43 years later, he was able to walk unrecognised down the street.
Armstrong made futile protests at President Obama’s decision to cancel Nasa’s planned resumption of moon landings, and said space exploration could not be entrusted to the private sector.
For the many millions of ageing Americans who witnessed his moonwalk, Armstrong’s passing felt like the close of an era.
Few events in history have equalled the tension and suspense of the moon landing. Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin left Michael Collins in the Apollo 11 mothership, as they began the 60- mile descent to the moon in a lunar module called the Eagle. The 1969 computer was overwhelmed and began flashing red alert lights. Its guidance system malfunctioned and almost landed the Eagle in a giant crater.
Armstrong demonstrated the level-headedness for which he was chosen by watching out the window as he shifted to manual control, but his task was complicated by clouds of lunar dust kicked up by the spacecraft.
At the same time, the Eagle’s fuel supply ran so low that it risked a crash landing. Armstrong had to decide whether to abort the mission by switching to the fuel tank that would propel the Eagle back to the mothership. He eased the Eagle onto the Sea of Tranquility with only 50 seconds to spare.
“The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong announced as the entire world listened, transfixed. From mission control in Houston, the relieved reply came back: “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
After 6½ hours inside the Eagle, Armstrong descended a ladder on to the lunar surface, his blurry black and white image beamed from a camera on the spacecraft back to planet earth. He had given little thought to the words he would utter.
They occurred to him during those hours after the Eagle landed and before he ventured out.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said as his astronaut’s boot left its imprint in the moondust.
In the statement announcing his death, Armstrong’s family called him “a reluctant hero” and it was typical of his modesty that he shrank from representing Every Man. He’d meant to say “a man”, not “man”, Armstrong said later. If it were up to him, he added, history books would insert the word “a” in parenthesis in the quotation.
Aldrin followed Armstrong through the Eagle’s hatch. Their bulky white spacesuits and the low gravity of the moon made their exploration of the surface look like a bouncy frolic.
“Here men from the planet earth first set foot on the moon,” said the plaque they left behind. “July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
For years, there was speculation about why Armstrong, not Aldrin, was chosen to step first on the moon. It was a rare instance of the nice guy finishing first.
In a 2001 autobiography, Christopher Kraft, a high-ranking Nasa official, wrote that Aldrin’s strong opinions and vast ambition were self-defeating. “Did we think Buzz was the man who would be our best representative to the world, the man who would be legend? We didn’t,” Kraft wrote. “Neil Armstrong, reticent, soft spoken and heroic, was our only choice.”
The Apollo 11 moon mission was far from Armstrong’s first adventure. When he was a boy in Ohio, his father, an auditor for the state, took him flying in a Ford Trimotor plane known as the Tin Goose. Armstrong was hooked, and learned to fly before he could drive a car, earning his pilot’s licence at 16.
In 2007 Armstrong told a group of school children in an email exchange that piloting the Eagle was “by far the most difficult and challenging part” of the moon landing. Guiding the spacecraft gave him “a feeling of elation”, he wrote.
“Pilots take no particular joy in walking. Pilots like flying,” he said on another occasion.
Armstrong studied engineering at Purdue University on a scholarship from the Navy. In First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, his biographer James Hansen told how Armstrong despaired in his first year at university when Charles Yeager broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1.
“I was disappointed by the wrinkle in history that had brought me along one generation late,” Armstrong told Hansen. “I had missed all the great times and adventures in flight.”
Armstrong interrupted his studies to fly 78 combat missions in the Korean War. He had to eject once because of a mechanical failure. He then became a test pilot for Nasa, flying the Bell X-15, a successor to Yeager’s rocket-powered aircraft. He made seven flights at 4,000 miles per hour, reaching the edge of space.
As a proven test pilot, Armstrong was a natural choice for the space programme. In March 1966 he piloted the Gemini 8 spacecraft through a harrowing crisis. After successfully docking with an unmanned vehicle – the first such mission in space – Gemini began spinning out of control.
“I gotta cage my eyeballs,” Armstrong remarked calmly as he and his crewmate struggled not to lose consciousness, which would have been fatal. Ever the calm pilot, Armstrong turned the thrusters off, stabilised the craft and activated its re-entry system.
After the moon landing, Armstrong and his crewmates were invited to dinner at the White House, tickertape parades in New York and Houston, and a “goodwill tour” through 28 cities.
Though not a recluse, Armstrong declined most media interviews. “I think Neil knew that this glorious thing he helped achieve for the country back in the summer of 1969 . . . would inexorably be diminished by the blatant commercialism of the modern world,” Hansen, his biographer, told the Washington Post. “And I think it’s a nobility of his character that he just would not take part in that.”
Armstrong explained the only television advertisement he recorded, for Chrysler for the 1979 Super Bowl, by his desire to help the struggling automobile manufacturer, with whom he had an engineering consultancy contract.
Armstrong worked as an administrator for Nasa for two years, then joined the staff of the engineering faculty at the University of Cincinnati. He resigned in 1979 because he disliked the unionism of other professors. His distaste for consumerism did not prevent him becoming a wealthy businessman, investor and director on corporate boards.
In an interview with Armstrong’s first wife Jean, Hansen noted that the astronaut was admired for refusing to exploit his fame. “Yes, but look what it’s done to him inside,” she replied.
“He feels guilty that he got all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people . . . He took it too seriously to heart.”
When Armstrong’s death was announced on Saturday, President Obama said he was “among the greatest of American heroes” whose moonwalk “delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”
The historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Armstrong for an oral history of Nasa, told the New York Times that Armstrong was “our nation’s most bashful Galahad”. Charles Bolden, the current head of Nasa, praised Armstrong’s “grace and humility” in the years following the moonwalk.