He was of a different era.
Raised during the Depression in Ohio, but born too young to fight in the Big War, he grew up dreaming of airplanes and flight. A brilliant student, he went to engineering school at Purdue at the age of seventeen and learned to fly young. He then enlisted in the Navy, applied his experience to become a fully qualified aviator at the tender age of twenty, and went on to fly almost eighty combat missions in Korea, one of which required him to eject from his aircraft after it was hit by fire from the ground.
But Neil Alden Armstrong’s greatest accomplishments were after the war, as a civilian employee of first the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and then the new agency formed from that organization in 1958 — NASA. He was one of the test pilots for the X-15 aircraft which, in an alternate history, would have been the first of many experimental vehicles to gradually open up the new frontier of space. He wasn’t just flying the aircraft, but writing technical papers on them and helping develop them. He would have been happy to continue to live in the California desert, flying aircraft higher and faster, until they finally became full-fledged space transports, but fate intervened in the form of Sputnik and the space race and (some have speculated) the loss of his young daughter Karen to a brain tumor in early 1962.
While the timing of the latter tragedy seemed to be correlated, he never said that it was a cause of his decision to switch over from aircraft research pilot to NASA astronaut. As he later told his biographer James Hansen, “It was a hard decision for me to make, to leave what I was doing, which I liked very much, to go to Houston. … But by 1962 Mercury was on its way, the future programs were well designed, and the lunar mission was going to become a reality. I decided that if I wanted to get out of the atmospheric fringes and into deep space work, that was the way to go.”
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.
Perhaps the saddest thing about his premature death (and in this era, 82 does seem young) is that after all the accomplishments of the sixties, during which it seemed to many that we were on the verge of opening up space with lunar bases and trips to Mars, the first man on the moon died almost forty years after the last one trod there. This December, it will have been four decades since Gene Cernan (who is thankfully still with us) stepped back into the LEM with Jack Schmitt (the first and last actual scientist to go) and left for Earth. No one has been back since. As science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle (only three years younger than Neil) once said, “I always knew that I’d see the first man on the moon, but I never dreamed that I’d see the last.”
We just lost a man who has walked on another world, the most famous one. There were once a dozen, and now two thirds are left. The indispensable XKCD provides a useful and sad graph of how long it will be before we have lost them all. Unless, of course, we make the necessary changes in policy to not just start to increase the number again, but do it in the next decade or three. But if we’re to up the rate significantly, we’ll have to have a different approach than we had the last time, something that Congress continues to fail to understand.
But if Neil Armstrong didn’t demonstrate the best way to get to the moon, he did demonstrate that it can be done, and it inspired generations of space engineers to take up his and Saint-Exupéry’s challenge to “enable the future.” They are now working at places that will finally get us back on track to the approach that he himself reluctantly abandoned half a century ago, so that he could once again serve his country in an existential Cold War while going where (to use the clichéd phrase) no man had gone before. As a tribute to his sacrifice, I hope that the first fully reusable orbital vehicle, the evolved product of earlier generations of reusable suborbital vehicles, carries on its nose the name SS (Space Ship) Neil Armstrong.
Resquiescat in pace, and ad astra per perspira, Professor.
More on science at PJ Lifestyle:
Charlie Martin: Curiosity on Mars: A Busy Robot With a Big Job
Howard Bloom: Why Societies Develop Like Embryos