Armstrong's Final Step

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Of the surface of the moon, Neil Armstrong once said, "It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it." For whatever else he was or was not—heroic astronaut, flight test engineer and pilot, college professor and author—Armstrong was a master of understatement. And when NASA realized Apollo 11 would be the first mission to attempt a lunar landing, it deliberately chose Armstrong to be the first man on the surface because it wanted a focused, inward-looking engineer who would wear the mantle of "first" with durable humility.

Armstrong did that and then some. His death over the weekend reminded all of us in the aviation community that post-Apollo, Armstrong spent decades trying to teach us what we could not quite grasp. He insisted that his role on Apollo 11 was mere happenstance, the lucky confluence of having the right skills, at the right time in the right place. He wasn't chosen, he insisted, he merely showed up for work. In other words, it was the program that mattered, the towering achievement of what Apollo represented, not the point of the spear of crews or individual astronauts. I don't suspect for a minute that Armstrong veneered himself with false modesty. He was genuine.

Of course, for many of us—me included—Armstrong's press shyness carried with it a tinge of disappointment for the simple reason that the 12 men who walked on the moon—four have died now—represent living history. They remain a flesh-and-blood link to an era when it appeared that anything was possible, when some of the best minds in the world achieved what would have been considered impossible a mere decade earlier. It's not that we want to know how they felt, but what they thought and what they think now, four decades hence. I never tire of hearing Apollo astronauts interviewed, not because I think they're heroes, but because in the telling and re-telling, we always learn some new nugget, some fresh perspective on a fascinating age of human exploration.

Yet, maybe the lesson Armstrong was trying to convey did finally take, at least for me personally. When I see old NASA film of the lunar program or a command module gracefully orbiting the moon, I don't think of Armstrong or any of the other individual astronauts. I think of the huge milestone the program represented and of the 400,000 people who contributed to it, just as Armstrong himself said we should.

Quirky to the end, Armstrong's last interview (Link) was with Alex Malley, head of the Certified Practicing Accounts of Australia. (And why not; Armstrong's father was an auditor.) It's probably unfair to call Armstrong a recluse. He just didn't like giving interviews because he reportedly thought it focused too much on him and too little on the program. But as you can see from that interview and this one with Ed Bradley, Armstrong was a thoughtful and engaging man, not the taciturn introvert we sometimes imagined him to be.

He may not have said much, but he said enough.

Comments (24)

For those of you who are too young and do not understand the magitude of the Apollo program should watch the Science Channel program called Moon Machines. This show concentrated on the various contractors and subcontractors who came up with solutions to each of the problems and issues involved with the program and the all the persons who worked on these problems. These are the persons that Commander Armstrong wanted to make that they got their share of credit for the moon landing. Forever a class act.

Posted by: matthew wagner | August 26, 2012 6:58 PM    Report this comment

Matthew said it all: A class act, indeed.

If only we had more of them.

Posted by: John Wilson | August 26, 2012 9:39 PM    Report this comment

I was fortunate to work at NASA during that time, and to work in Mission Control on two of the Apollo missions. Although I never had the priviledge of meeting Neil, I've met 7 of the 12 who walked on the moon, including Pete Conrad and Alan Shepard, both of whom are dead now. These guys, and their CMP's, are, for me, the greatest heroes America has ever produced. Alan Bean has been quoted as saying that the Apollo Program was an abberation, that only because of a miraculous conjunction of events, Sputnik and a perceived Soviet threat, a President with vision, and a compliant Congress were we able to go to the moon when we did. He said this otherwise would not have happened for another 100 to 200 years from when it did. Jack Schmidt is often asked if we can go to the moon, why can't we do - (???) His answer is that you can do (???), if you have 400,000 people willing to work 7 days a week, more than 12 hours a day, for 10 years to do it - because that is how we did it. Here's to Neil and the other 3, (two above and Jim Irwin), who have Gone West. Fair skies and tailwinds. We'll be thinking about you every time we look up at the moon.

Posted by: Robert Ryan | August 27, 2012 5:23 AM    Report this comment

I was fortunate enough to live during the Apollo missions and experience the events first-hand. In fact, due to a technical issue the first walk was on my birthday!

As you said Paul, another peace of our history has moved on.

Rest in peace.

Posted by: Richard Norris | August 27, 2012 5:28 AM    Report this comment

I too, wish Neil Armstrong could have been around longer than the 82 years the good Lord saw fit for him to be among us. He comes across to me as Charles Lindbergh without C.L.'s personal flaws.

I was 20 years old in 1969, between my sophomore and junior years as a student of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology. I was working a summer job, and it so happened I was home between two road trips I took that summer in the course of my work. I saw on TV live, as it happened, Neil Armstrong piloting Eagle (Lunar Module) to a landing in a rock-strewn field on the moon with what? 2 seconds of fuel left!

What a great pilot he was, having saved himself, another astronaut and a Gemini capsule from what could have been certain destruction when a thruster malfunctioned during the GT-8 mission, right after the first rendezvous and docking in space (The first rendezvous, without docking, had occurred between two Gemini's the previous December).

I would like to think he's somewhere out there, beyond our known horizons, engaging in hangar-talk with Sally Ride and Alan Shepard and all the other astronauts and cosmonauts who have flown west before him. I would like to think he's not really gone - just away on a final space flight.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | August 27, 2012 7:10 AM    Report this comment

The Man simply epitomized bravery, confidence, competence and self control, like no one in the 20th Century. The situations he encountered and mastered through out his career are simply remarkable and would have just been another tragedy to a lesser man. It is impossible to calculate what we have lost.

Posted by: william laatsch | August 27, 2012 9:16 AM    Report this comment

Couldn't agree more with all above. In '69, my best friend from college was working at Redstone on the Saturn V and I was a senior med student in Houston not far from entering the Air Force. My wife, I, and a few friends were clustered around our old B&W TV watching as Armstrong stepped down. Heady times for all, and what a fine gentleman to inspire us! Paul, you misspoke, I think - I don't believe there was anything "false" about his veneer of modesty.

Posted by: warford johnson 11 | August 27, 2012 9:53 AM    Report this comment

Those who subscribe to Plane & Pilot magazine already know this, but for those participating in this forum who don't subscribe to said magazine: On pages 60-62 of the September 2012 edition of P&P, there's an article on the Lindbergh Foundation and a convocation they held this past spring to observe the 85th anniversary of C.L.'s most famous flight. Among the attendees were Reeve Lindbergh, C.'s daugher, her nephew Erik, and several astronauts including Jom Lovell, Gene Cernan, and also .... Neil Armstrong.

Here's a quote from said article: "Neil Armstrong, who really needs no introduction, spoke of the formation of the Lindbergh Foundation. Recounting the alliances fromed between some of the most influential people of the time, Armstrong spoke of the challenges and struggles the foundation faced in its infancy, and how numerous influential people worked dillegently to make the Lindbergh Foundation a reality. "

I can't help but note how N.A. was mentioned in the latest edition of P&P to be published, not long before he died.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | August 27, 2012 9:56 AM    Report this comment

My dad bought a new 15" color Trinitron to watch the landings, a big purchase for him with three little kids in tow. (The color part didn't really help huh...).

There is something unusually sad about this news. I am not sure why it brings tears to my eyes. Can one man - just one person - embody an amazing moment in human history, when a great nation gave its heart and soul to a cause it universally believed in? Perhaps that's why it's so sad. I don't honestly know.

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | August 27, 2012 10:21 AM    Report this comment

"Houston, (pause) Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed."

Those words sparked the some of wildest cheering and joyous celebration I've ever been a part of. We heard them over a tiny screen b/w portable tv the gas station attendant, Chris Kuntz, had snuck in to John Adams’ Shell station on the corner of Granby Road and East St. I'll bet a lot of other people remember exactly where they were and who they were with (no matter how many years since we saw them). Kennedy's May 25, 1961 speech started the ball rolling, for me when the guidance counselor told me I couldn't go to a trade high school like I wanted, since anyone with the ability to learn had to prepare for a career in rocket science if that was where they would be most useful. I didn't make it to the rocket scientist stage but did end up on a path useful to many programs and actually made it to the 6594th Recovery Control Center room to listen in as the last Apollo (18, unofficially) returned from the Apollo-Soyuz mission. We heard the live results from the tiny procedural glitch that left them inhaling nitrogen tetroxide fumes and later recovery anomalies, 6 years and 4 days after Armstrong's moon landing (6 years to the day after the Hornet picked the Apollo 11 capsule and crew up).

(part 1 of 3)

Posted by: Jim Young | August 27, 2012 12:14 PM    Report this comment

"Houston, (pause) Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed."

(continued from part 1)

After 20 years in weather support, I got to work for an aerospace company that like many others had people who would "cheat," and put in hundreds thousands of hours extra time for free, so people like Astronaut Cady Coleman could come to the plant and describe watching a launch from the very closest possible point, while holding the hand of a young child of one of the crew. She described the unbelievable roar, shockwaves of sound and the hard-to-fathom Shuttle reaching 100mph when barely clear of the tower, but being able to reassure the child, “Your dad will be ok, everyone did the very best job they could possibly do.” The guys that were putting in 75 hours a week, started putting in even more, reaching a hundred or so, on occasions you will never find in bills sent to the government auditors (and never, ever, complained about).

(part 2 of 3)

Posted by: Jim Young | August 27, 2012 12:17 PM    Report this comment

"Houston, (pause) Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed."
(continued from part 2)

Neil Armstrong’s Australian interview, his last, reveals what he was thinking as he made up, on the spot, “This is a small step by (a) man, a giant leap for mankind.” He felt he was just the guy on the schedule that was there when everything went well enough that they could actually land. The last part of the quote came from thinking about the 400,000 people (on the more official team) that got us to that point.

He, as always wanted to stay useful, so taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati for 8 years, after flying to the moon. In his path through life, his dad had taken him to the Cleveland Air Races when he was two, but his first ride in an airplane came when he was 6, in a Tri-motor, on July 20, 1933 (33 years to the day before he landed on the moon). He became an Eagle Scout and wanted to apply to MIT but an MIT grad dissuaded him from going to MIT and led him to the Holloway (Naval ROTC) program, instead.

For those who claim to have simply built their business, please consider what they, our country, and mankind throughout the world, got for making helping make Neil Armstrong “useful.”

(part 3 of 3)

Posted by: Jim Young | August 27, 2012 12:19 PM    Report this comment

What a tremendous loss to the aviation community and the wider world. Paul, you hit the nail on the head. During his many tours of facilities building various Apollo components, this homegrown Ohio boy scout/engineer/pilot/teacher was unfailingly interested in the tasks of every one of the 400,000 that were making his lunar flight possible. He was the ultimate team player and a great commander who never sought the glory that came his way. He wore it well, not unlike his fellow Ohioans, Orville and Wilbur Wright, whose wing fabric from the 1903 Flyer he carried to the surface of the moon.

Posted by: Robert Bollinger | August 27, 2012 12:19 PM    Report this comment

I was 11 years old when Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon. I followed the space program closely back then; something made easier due to my father was an Air Force pilot stationed at Patrick AFB during that magical time.

Several weeks later at the annual Society of Experimental Test Pilots dinner I got to meet and shake hands with both Neil Armstrong and Charles Lindbergh. As a major airplane geek and space program fanatic, this was pure heaven!

I was very saddened to learn of his passing. People like him are very few and far between.

Posted by: Art Jackson | August 27, 2012 2:18 PM    Report this comment

The world has lost a genuine Hero.I had the good fortune to work with the Chimpanzee program in the very early space program when little was know about the hazards of space on a living organism. But, Chang AKA Ham proved that one could perform under excess G forces and when in zero gravity. Neil and the others carried that information to the moon.

Posted by: Lester Zinser | August 27, 2012 2:20 PM    Report this comment

Well said, Paul! Thank you.


Posted by: Ted Spitzmiller | August 27, 2012 3:40 PM    Report this comment

They don't make them like that anymore.
Neil Armstrong was a genuine hero of the old school and I was lucky to hear him speak in Dublin on Nov 17 2003. He seemed a modest and thoughtful man and gave a fascinating interview. He described the burn which launched the spacecraft into TLI on it's way to the moon and how the Earth slowly became smaller until he could see the whole planet through the porthole moving away slowly. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater. When asked how it felt to watch your whole world drift away like that he described what most readers here will appreciate. He said it felt just like the first time he first soloed an aircraft.
I was lucky to meet him at a dinner afterwards and have a (treasured) photo taken with him.
An era has passed.

Posted by: Kieran Timmons | August 28, 2012 12:18 AM    Report this comment

There is another kind of sad “fading away” postscript to those first steps on the moon that Pete Kuhns’ comment about watching on a specially purchased new TV reminded me of.

We (those who watched, anyway) remember the ghostly black & white images of those first steps, and as magical as that was the lack of clarity of the pictures is one of the items the “it never happened” crowd uses as “evidence”.

The Tranquility pictures were transmitted to the earth station in Australia via a custom non-standard TV system at 10 frames per second and there converted to broadcast standard TV for distribution to the world. In those early-digital days, the conversion was simply a TV camera focused on a special long-persistence monitor that displayed the 10 fps raw video from the moon, and the result was what we all viewed.

A few years back someone who was actually present at the Australia earth station recalled that the raw picture from space was much, much clearer and more detailed on the station monitor than the converted result, and that digitally converting the raw data with modern techniques could give us a vastly clearer picture of the event.

At the time, the raw data downlink had been recorded in Australia on IBM reel-to-reel data tapes and a concerted search for them was launched throughout NASA, but to no avail. Eventually it was reluctantly decided they no longer exist, most likely having been erased and re-used at some point.

Posted by: John Wilson | August 28, 2012 7:46 PM    Report this comment

Reading your blog I couldn't help think you missed the chance in Short Final to say:

Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.

RIP Neil Armstrong.

I was 16 at the time and remember watching it all on TV then walking outside later that afternoon and looked up at the Moon in awe that there were men there.

Saturday after hearing the news I went outside, looked up at the Moon and shed a tear.

Posted by: Dave Werth | August 29, 2012 8:11 PM    Report this comment

I grew up around experimental aircraft and the men who built and flew them; my dad was with North American, Vought, Consolidated, and Bell. I spent 1957 at Mojave while Dad worked on "Project Bullet"; wept with the Madison's and Omvig's when the Tri-Service crashed at Mountain Creek. Dad passed three years ago and I miss the stories of true heroes developing ground-breaking aircraft...those days will never happen again. The tragedy is that as they pass away, so do their stories...the moments of terror they were able to describe with side-splitting humor. I think that is the most difficult thing for non-aviation people to moments of complete horror could be washed away by a debrief of beer and self-deprecation that ended up with comedy. I miss all the greats, Dad included, with the fading vignets of how we have arrived at our destination.

Posted by: Don Loughran | August 30, 2012 8:28 AM    Report this comment

Pt. 1

Thanks very much to our Russian colleagues for their kind words:

These days all Russian cosmonauts, all fellow-workers of Russian cosmonautics and all Russian people see off and revere the memory of Neil Armstrong. He has been born a citizen of the USA and is leaving our earthy life as a citizen of planet Earth, as a son of all Mankind.

Throughout his spectacular and intricate life Neil Armstrong aspired for new heights and achievements, and was always ready to accomplish what nobody before was able to perform; he was a true pioneer in the leap of the Mankind towards understanding and exploring the world.

The breakthrough of Mankind into space has been recognized as the greatest achievement of the 20th century. And in this greatest achievement the name of Yuri Gagarin, who personifies the beginning of the space era and the name of Neil Armstrong, who personifies the beginning of human missions to other planets will live forever in history and in the memory of all people on Earth.

Posted by: Andy Turnage | September 1, 2012 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Pt. 2

The famous phrase by Neil Armstrong about Yuri Gagarin “He invited all us to space” and his popular quotation at the moment of stepping on the Moon – “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" – show him as a man of the whole Earth, who is conscious about all Mankind with its Life and Progress, with its present and future. And in his earthy life Neil was a diligent, modest, talented and self-sacrificing person. As such, he will stay forever in our memory.

For and on behalf of all Russian cosmonauts,

Association of Space Explorers-Russia
Victor Savinykh
Natalia Kuleshova

Posted by: Andy Turnage | September 1, 2012 8:41 AM    Report this comment

Pt. 2

The famous phrase by Neil Armstrong about Yuri Gagarin “He invited all us to space” and his popular quotation at the moment of stepping on the Moon – “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" – show him as a man of the whole Earth, who is conscious about all Mankind with its Life and Progress, with its present and future.
And in his earthy life Neil was a diligent, modest, talented and self-sacrificing person. As such, he will stay forever in our memory.

For and behalf of all Russian cosmonauts,

Victor Savinikh
Natalia Kuleshova

Posted by: Andy Turnage | September 1, 2012 8:42 AM    Report this comment

Can the Chad Ochocinco's of the world even understand Neil Armstrong? He scored the greatest "touchdown" ever. The was no ball spike or end zone celebration. He calmly flipped the ball to the referee, gave credit to the team, and returned to the bench. In addition to his prowess in aviation and engineering, he may be the greatest sportsman ever.

Posted by: Mike Massimini | September 8, 2012 8:31 PM    Report this comment

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