Last year on the 49th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon I wrote a blog post about Neil Armstrong and the historic Apollo 11 mission. It has now been 50 years since that historic mission. This post is a revised version of the post from 2018.
As a grammar school student, I enjoyed giving school reports on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. It was easy because that was about all I read about. In 1969 I was a junior in high school. I was transfixed watching the Apollo 11 moon mission and Neil Armstrong’s historic “small step for (a) man” on the powdery surface of the landing site on the Sea of Tranquility. Watching back then I could not have imagined that nearly 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 recap 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 the Kennedy Space Center on a Saturn V, a three-stage, liquid-fueled rocket. Saturn Vs stood 363 feet tall and produced a maximum thrust of 7.9 million pound-force. The Saturn V remains the largest, most powerful rocket ever.
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 Command Module Columbia manned by Michael 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 ever 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 him 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 moon before blasting off and rendezvousing with 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 Cinergy, the Cincinnati, OH electric and gas utility where I was employed. He was a member of the Public Policy Committee of the board. In 1997, I was assigned as the Assistant Corporate Secretary for that committee. The committee met four times per year normally, and I think Armstrong never missed a meeting.
While I can’t claim to have known Armstrong well, sitting in on discussions of various issues over the years provided insight on his attitudes, character, and personality. The late 90s was the time 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.
Armstrong was humble, smart, and had a good sense of humor. He did not fit the stereotype of a cocky, sierra hotel (shit hot) fighter jock and astronaut. At meetings we would exchange greetings and pleasantries but knowing that he treasured privacy and being in a support role, I hesitated to engage in substantive conversation or ask any of the the zillions of questions I was curious about.
Armstrong’s Favorite Aircraft
The exception was one of the receptions for board members. I told Armstrong 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. While Armstrong attended Purdue, he flew single-engine airplanes at the same small airport in West Lafayette, IN that I had flown into several times. It is hard to visualize the guy who flew the X-15 flying little taildraggers there and swapping stories with the locals in the office.
During our discussion Armstrong volunteered the identity of the aircraft he most enjoyed flying. Considering he had flown more than 200 of the fastest and most advanced aircraft types of his day, his choice was surprising and revealing.
As reported in a side note in a post about 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, a “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, Armstrong 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. He definitely had the “right stuff.”)”
His choice reflected Armstrong’s unassuming nature. The Bearcat was relatively uncomplicated. It was old technology. It wasn’t the fastest airplane. In fact, jets made the Bearcat obsolete. Nevertheless, the Bearcat was likely Armstrong’s first high-performance aircraft and one in which he experienced the joys of good ole stick-and-rudder flying to the fullest. It was fun.
Over the course of his careers as naval aviator, test pilot, and astronaut, Armstrong calmly dealt with many extremely dangerous situations including one embarrassing incident in 1962 in a T-33 with Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier. Armstrong was the pilot in command. Yeager and Armstrong tell different stories about the incident, but it is without dispute that the T-33 ended up stuck on a California dry lake bed that was not as dry as it appeared from altitude.
In 1968, Armstrong was training in a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) when it malfunctioned 100 feet off the ground. He ejected at the last second before it crashed. A review of the incident concluded that if Armstrong had delayed ejecting for one more second, he would have been too low for his chute to open fully.
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 over North Korea, Armstrong’s Panther was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Attempting to evade the AAA, he clipped a pole 20 feet off the ground and sliced three feet off the tip of his right wing. Somehow Armstrong avoided crashing. Rather than risk a carrier trap or runway landing with the right aileron missing, he elected to ditch the aircraft at sea and bail out just off the coast.
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. In my lifetime of all the famous people that I could meet and work with, Neil Armstrong is at the top of my list. There are many U. S. Presidents, tycoons, movie stars, kings and queens, etc. 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 was Neil Armstrong, and I had the honor and pleasure of working with him.
When Armstrong passed, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander and another former astronaut I had the pleasure of meeting, 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. His piloting skills together with his courage, character, and integrity amply qualified him for that honor. My sense is that Armstrong’s rejection of the enormous fame and fortune that was easily within his grasp was due to his innate personality, recognition that his accomplishments as an astronaut were achievable only through the efforts of thousands, and knowing others could have performed the same deeds. In my experience with Armstrong, it was never about ego. It was never about him. We could use a hell of a lot more of that these days.
What are your thoughts or remembrances about the moon landings?