As a teenager in 1969, I was transfixed watching and reading about the Apollo 11 moon mission and Neil Armstrong’s historic “small step for (a) man” on the boulder-strewn Sea of Tranquility. At that time, I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined that about 30 years later I would have the good fortune to work with Neil Armstrong on multiple occasions over the span of several years!
Apollo 11 Mission
For those with fuzzy memories or who were not around at the time, here is a short summary of the mission with NASA videos and photos that convey a bit of the drama the nation and the world witnessed half a century ago.
On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on a Saturn V, a three-stage, liquid-fueled rocket standing 363 feet tall and producing a maximum thrust of 7.9 million pound-force. Saturn Vs remain the biggest and most powerful rockets ever built.
On July 20, 1969, after completing the journey to the moon and entering lunar orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbed into the Eagle, the Lunar Module, separated from the Command Module Columbia manned by Micheal Collins, and began the descent maneuvers.
Armstrong landed the Eagle on the Sea of Tranquility at 20:17:40 UTC. A few hours later at 02:39 UTC on July 21, 1969 Armstrong opened the hatch on the Lunar Module to begin the first lunar EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity). At 02:56:15 on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong put his left foot on the surface of the moon and became the first human to set foot on a heavenly body other than Earth. Nineteen minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface.
This is enhanced video of that historic lunar EVA.
Photographs were of a much higher quality.
During their EVA of about 2.5 hours, Armstrong and Aldrin took photos and video, set up scientific experiments, and collected lunar soil and rock samples.
The astronauts spent 21.5 hours on the surface of the moon before blasting off and rendezvousing and docking with Collins in the Command Module in lunar orbit. On July 24, 1969, the astronauts and the Command Module splashed down in the Pacific near American Samoa.
This video is a good overview of the Apollo 11 mission.
Several Decades After Apollo 11, By Chance I Had The Honor of Working With Neil Armstrong
If there is any “claim to fame” I can brag about, it is that for several years I worked with Neil Armstrong who served on the board of directors of the company where I was employed. He was a member of the Public Policy Committee of the board, and I was assigned as the Assistant Corporate Secretary for that committee. The committee met four times per year normally and I think he didn’t miss a meeting.
While I can’t claim to have known Armstrong well, sitting in on various discussions in numerous meetings over the years provided insight on his attitudes, character, and personality. This was in the late ’90s, the days of flip phones. I have no selfies or photos. And I have no doubt that if asked for an autograph, Armstrong would have politely but firmly declined.
At the meetings I would exchange greetings and pleasantries with Armstrong but knowing that he treasured privacy and being in a support role, I hesitated to engage him in substantive conversation or ask any of the the zillions of questions I was curious about.
The one exception was at one of the receptions for board members. I mentioned that I was a private pilot, had recently received an instrument rating, and greatly enjoyed flying. We talked briefly about small aircraft and the fact that my mother and two uncles had attended Purdue University a few years before he did. Armstrong volunteered the identity of the aircraft he most enjoyed flying. As I reported in a side note to a trip report on the Japan Airlines 787-9:
“… He was great to work with and a very humble and private person. Out of respect for his privacy, I never asked him how it felt to be the first human to set foot on a celestial object other than Earth. But I can state that he was a very unpretentious, and paradoxically, “down to earth” guy. For example, he told me the aircraft he enjoyed flying most was the Grumman F-8F Bearcat, the final version of the Wildcat/Hellcat line and a plane he flew in Navy flight training. That is damned high praise for a piston-powered aircraft from a sierra hotel (shit hot) test pilot and astronaut. Among other feats, he flew the X-15 to the edge of space at nearly 4,000 mph and avoided a boulder field and the ultimate “screw the pooch” moment to safely land the Eagle on the Sea of Tranquility with only about 25 seconds of fuel remaining. He performed that landing in front of a worldwide TV audience of over 600 million. Neil Armstrong was one cool customer and definitely had the “right stuff.”)”
Armstrong calmly dealt with many extremely dangerous situations over the course of his careers as a naval aviator, test pilot, and astronaut including one embarrassing incident in a T-33 with Chuck Yeager in 1962. Yeager and Armstrong tell different stories, but Armstrong ended up getting the T-33 stuck on a dry lake bed.
Perhaps Armstrong’s closest call was in 1951. At age 20, he was flying Grumman F9F Panthers off the USS Essex in the Korean War.
On one low-level bombing run, Armstrong’s Panther was hit by North Korean anti-aircraft fire. Attempting to evade the AAA, he hit a pole 20 feet off the ground and sliced three feet off his right wing. Armstrong somehow avoided crashing but with the right aileron missing, he was forced to ditch just off the coast rather than risk a carrier trap or runway landing. We know someone famous who says he doesn’t like pilots who are shot down.
In 2000, Armstrong retired from the board due to age limits. I had no contact with him after that. He passed in 2012 due to complications from heart surgery.
It is unfortunate that those currently younger than 55 may never experience the feelings of pride, wonder and inspiration that the Apollo 11 mission brought to the nation and people all over the world. Of all the famous people in my lifetime that I could meet and talk to, Neil Armstrong is at the top of my list. There are many Presidents, tycoons, movie stars, kings and queens, etc.. But in the history of mankind, there can be only one person who was the first human to set foot on another celestial object. That person is Neil Armstrong.
When Armstrong passed, Charles Bolden, the NASA Administrator and a former space shuttle commander, said it well: “As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own”.
Neil Armstrong took that step, and more than that was a person of courage, character, and integrity. I’m speculating, but my sense is that Armstrong’s rejection of the fame, fortune and prominence that were easily within his grasp was primarily his innate personality but also due to understanding that his accomplishments as an astronaut were achievable only through the dedicated efforts of thousands who received little or no recognition. In my experience, it was never about him. We could use more selflessness like that these days.