Who's Neil Armstrong?

Neil Armstrong died today (August 25th 2012). This post has been prompted by the surprising (to me) revelation that a number of people actually don't know who he was. It's not just real people either: at least two major news outlets have got basic details about the man wrong, including his name and even his gender! So I think this is probably necessary.

Neil Armstrong: August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012
By NASA / Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.via Wikimedia Commons
Neil Armstrong is an inspiration. In 1969, watched by an entire world* on their television sets, Neil Armstrong set foot on another one for the first time. It is for this that his name is most widely known.

Armstrong completed his one small step for [a] man when he was 38 years old. Prior to this, he had completed national service as an Aviator in the United States Navy (1949 - 1952), spending 121 hours in the air over 78 missions. He also completed a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering (1955). After this he became an experimental research test pilot, first at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, and then at the Edwards Air Force Base (1955 - 1962). In 1958, Armstrong's route into his astronaut career began with his selection for the US Air Force's Man In Space Soonest program. After a period as a pilot-consultant and a pilot-engineer on the development of a  military space plane Armstrong was asked, after a late application and subsequent process, if he'd be interested in joining the NASA Astronaut Corps. He said yes.

Armstrong's first trip into space happened in 1966, as Command Pilot with the Gemini 8 spacecraft. In the Apollo program, Armstrong was offered the post as Apollo 11's commander whilst Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon.

Apollo 11 was, of course, the first mission to take human beings to the moon. After a successful launch and uneventful four-day journey, Eagle (the Lunar Module) separated from Columbia (the Command Module) and began its descent to the surface of the moon. The tale of the landing is a bit hairy, and told wonderfully in this Scientific American article: For Neil Armstrong, the First Moon Walker, It Was All about Landing the Eagle. To cut a long story short, after some computer issues, Armstrong landed the Eagle perfectly, with about 20 seconds of fuel to spare.

Six and a half hours later, Aldrin and Armstrong stepped out onto lunar soil, with Armstrong uttering his famous phrase "that's one small step for [a]** man; one giant leap for mankind". The two astronauts spent just over two and a half hours on their EVA, and after a total of twenty one and a half hours on the surface, Eagle launched to rejoin Michael Collins in Columbia, in orbit around the moon. The astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th 1969.

After Apollo 11, Armstrong did not fly in space again. He completed a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1970 and served as Deputy Associate Administrator for aeronautics for the Office of Advanced Research and Technology (DARPA) for a year, resigning from NASA in 1970.

He taught at the University of Cincinnati as Professor of Aerospace Engineering until resigning in 1979. During this time he also served on Apollo 13's accident investigation in 1970.

After 1979, Armstrong served as a spokesperson as well as being on the board of directors for a number of US based engineering companies, and in 1986 took part in the accident investigation for the Challenger disaster.

He was well known with regards to not allowing his name or image to be used in advertising or in products: in 1981 MTV wanted to use his quote for its Apollo 11 ident - he refused; in 1994 he sued Hallmark Cards for using his name and a recording of "one small step" in a Christmas ornament - he donated the undisclosed out-of-court settlement to his old University, Purdue; after this he stopped signing autographs because he learnt that items he had signed were being sold for large sums of money, and that there were many forgeries in circulation; in 2005 Armstrong's barber sold a lock of his hair for $3000 - Armstrong threatened legal action unless his hair was returned or the proceeds were donated to charity.

Armstrong died, aged 82, on August 25th 2012 following complications related to surgery to unblock coronary arteries. US President Barack OBama is quoted as saying that Armstrong resides "among the greatest of American heroes - not just of his time, but of all time". His family released a statement including fitting advice for those who wish to honour and remember one of humanity's heroes of exploration and discovery: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”



So, perhaps, next time you see that big, grey orb hanging in the sky, you might like to join myself and others and wink at the moon*** in memory of one of modern history's great explorers.






* Well, the parts of the world with television at the time.
** There's some contention over the "a". It doesn't appear to be there in the recordings, but Armstrong said it was always the intention that it would be there, and the phrase doesn't make sense without it. It's possible that technological limitations, static or other influences masked the "a". It's also possible that Armstrong fluffed the line or forgot that bit. Who could blame him if he did?
*** And tweet about it, using the hashtag #winkatthemoon if you do!

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