First Man: Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

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.”