So, because of the urgency of the space race, in which we shifted from the slow, steady, but more affordable approach to a crash project that involved putting men on top of expendable and unreliable missiles, he was accepted into the second group of astronaut trainees for the upcoming Apollo program to the moon. In fact, his experience as a research pilot was a key factor in his selection. Unlike some of the other hot-shot natural pilots like Chuck Yeager and Pete Knight, Armstrong’s engineering degree and knowledge gave him an extra dimension. Chris Kraft, an iconic flight controller from the era, said that “I was prejudiced for the fact that this guy’s been a NACA test pilot. So he’s probably head and shoulders above…I shouldn’t say it that strongly. But he was above the capability of the other test pilots we had in the loop because he’d been through the daily contact with flight engineers, of which I was one.” And because of that experience and training, he became the first American civilian to fly in space (most of the rest of the astronaut corps at that time was active military).
But his qualification went beyond his engineering knowledge and experience — he was cool under fire and in emergencies.
On one of his X-15 flights, in doing an experiment to test a g-limiting system, he ballooned to too high an altitude for his planned trajectory and ended up coming into the atmosphere above Pasadena, tens of miles south of where he was supposed to be to return to Edwards Air Force Base. He had to quickly make a decision to see if he had enough glide energy to make it back, or to try for nearer fields at El Mirage or Palmdale Airport. He decided to attempt to make it home, “straight in,” and did so with margin, setting a record for the program in terms of cross-range distance and flight duration.
Later, as a test pilot of a lunar landing simulator, the vehicle went out of control, upon which he ejected, came down with his chute, gathered it up, walked back to his office, and calmly sat down to write up his test report.
That kind of experience stood him in good stead a few years later when, as pilot of the lunar module Eagle on the first manned mission to the lunar surface, he had to avoid rocks as he descended to the moon with his propellant so low as to trip the warning light. Had it been much closer, he would have had to abort back to lunar orbit with the ascent stage, and forfeit his opportunity to land. But with his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin calling out distances and velocities, he landed safely, and hours later, stepped off the porch of the lander onto the dusty regolith and into history.
For all of his accomplishments, he was a humble man. I saw him publicly twice, though I never actually met him. The first time was several years ago, at one of his rare public appearances, when he accepted an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Southern California (he had gotten his Masters degree in engineering there decades before while living in Southern California) and gave a commencement address. Note that he understands that a commencement address is not about the speaker, but about those graduating:
Custom dictates that a commencement speaker give a word of advice to the new graduates. And I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions merit your attention. The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident. You can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources. What are not easily stolen from you without your cooperation are your principles and your values. They are your most important possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man. Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program for the human character. And what will that future bring? I do not know, but it will be exciting.
The author of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a pilot in World War II, which, unfortunately, he did not survive. Fortunately, his writings did survive, and I will pass along one piece of his advice. In Saint-Exupéry’s “Wisdom of the Sands,”he wrote: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.”
The second time was earlier this year, when he gave a keynote address at the suborbital researchers conference in Palo Alto, regaling the attendees with a presentation on the X-15 program, whose accomplishments private industry is just starting to build on and replicate. He didn’t just fly in for a speech and leave, but hung out and attended many of the sessions, making himself freely available to all and offering professorial advice, just as he has been for decades since he left NASA.