25 August 2012

In Memoriam of Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)--Man Who Ushered In the Giant Leap for Mankind

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong Saluting the US Flag, July 21, 1969

Neil Armstrong, the first human who walked on the Moon, died at the age of 82.  Armstrong had recently undergone surgery to relieve blocked coronary arteries.

Purdue University, Armstrong Hall of Engineering
Armstrong was born and raised in West-Central Ohio. Armstrong was so keen on aviation in his youth that he had a pilot’s license before having a driver’s license.  Armstrong was an avid Boy Scout, earning the Eagle Scout distinction which was instrumental throughout his life.  Armstrong studied aerospace at Purdue University,  rather than M.I.T., as he was convinced that is was unnecessary to go all the way to Cambridge for a good education.  Armstrong’s tuition was paid through the Holloway plan, which mandated two years of study followed by three years service in the United States Navy before completing his undergraduate degree.

Armstrong was a US Navy aviator who saw action in the Korean War. During a low bombing run near Wonsan in September 1951, his plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire and subsequently hit a pole, slicing off three feet of the Panther fighter’s wing.  Armstrong was able to navigate back to friendly territory, but needed to eject due to damage to the aileron.  Perhaps it was this example of coolness under pressure that later influenced later colleagues of the need for Armstrong to be on the first lunar landing mission.

 After leaving the Navy active service in 1952, Armstrong completed his undergraduate education and then became a test pilot for a precursor of NASA, first in Cleveland and shortly thereafter at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  When completing a mission to drop a Douglass Skyrocket from a B-29 Superfortress, one of the engines disintegrated while ascending at 30,000 feet.  Armstrong and his co-pilot were able safely land using only one engine. Armstrong later flew the X-15 rocket planes, one of which reached an altitude of 207,000 feet.  Many of Armstrong’s fellow test pilots felt that he was the most technically capable of X-15 test pilots.
Recovery of Gemini 8 Spashdown 1966

In 1958, Neil Armstrong was chosen as one of the Man In Space Soonest program.  In November 1960, Armstrong was tapped to be one of the six pilots for the X-20 Dyn-Soar military space planes. Armstrong was one of two civilian pilots who were named as NASA’s “New Nine” in September, 1962.   Armstrong was the Commanding Pilot on Gemini 8 in March 1966, which was designated to rendez-vous and dock with an unmanned target vehicle.  Armstrong was backup Command Pilot for Gemini 11.

Neil Armstrong was named as the Commander of Apollo 11, which was destined to land on the Moon.  NASA officials wanted Armstrong to be the first man on the Moon as he was not deemed to have a big ego.  This P.R. prudence in choosing Armstrong was demonstrated on Apollo 11's trip to the Moon in July 1969 when Armstrong greeted his fellow Boy Scouts:

I'd like to say hello to all my fellow Scouts and Scouters at Farragut State Park in Idaho having a National Jamboree there this week; and Apollo 11 would like to send them best wishes". Houston: "Thank you, Apollo 11. I'm sure that, if they didn't hear that, they'll get the word through the news. Certainly appreciate that.

Armstrong’s level-headedness also served by his piloting.  Armstrong was unflustered by unknown error codes when piloting the Eagle Lunar Landing Vehicle on approach to the Moon landing.  Although Houston Mission Control was worried about potential low fuel issues of the Lunar Lander, Armstrong’s training led him to believe that there was 40 seconds of fuel left for launching from the Moon.

As for the inconic Moon landing, Armstrong had given quite a bit of though to these monumental words.  But in the excitement of moment, it seems that Neil dropped a syllable in uttering the famous “One small step for [a] man–one giant leap for mankind.”

Those words were heard by an audience of 450 million listeners out of a world population of 3.6 billion people.

Leaving the Moon was a little more potentially treacherous than expected. Aside from the worries over low fuel for lunar blast off, the bulky astronaut suits broke the ignition for the ascent engine.  This mechanical malfunction was overcome by using part of the pen to activate the launch sequence mechanism. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were able to rendez-vous with the Columbia and the three Astronauts splashed down in the Western Pacific. The Apollo 11 crew spent 18 days in decontamination, during which time they were greeted by President Richard M. Nixon.

Apollo 11 crew and President Nixon, 1969
Armstrong briefly served as a NASA administrator and then taught Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati for eight years.  Armstrong received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Armstrong did do some corporate endorsements, only for American companies.  Armstrong served as a spokesman for Chrysler in 1979 he deemed the automaker as a strong engineering company with financial difficulties.  Armstrong also served on several boards of directors for corporations.

However, Neil Armstrong was a remarkably private person. Armstrong threatened legal action in 2005 against his barber for selling some of Armstrong’s hair to a collector.  In lieu of returning the purloined hair follicles, the perfidious cosmetologist donated the $3,000 proceeds to a charity of Armstrong’s choice.  Armstrong also became chary about signing autographs as they were selling for large sums of money and there were many forgeries.  Such indiscreet idolization caused Armstrong to stop sending signed letters of congratulations to Eagle Scout recipients, a practice which he had done for years.

Armstrong was a modest man who ushered in mankind’s exploration of other planets. His example off cool confidence, meticulous preparation and remembering his roots should be an example to all of us.

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