Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, is dead, having just passed his 82nd birthday on 5 August and having undergone heart bypass surgery at about the same time.
He was an avid adept at flying, and earned his pilot license at the age of 15, before his driver’s license and his attainment of Eagle Scout. He later attended Purdue on scholarship with the Holloway Plan, which allowed him to attend his first two years of college, then serve a tour of three years in the Navy, then return to complete his degree. It was during this tour of duty that he became a Naval Aviator at the age of 20 and flew some 78 combat missions in the Korean War in an F9F Panther. (The Holloway Plan no longer exists; US fighter pilots typically are at least 25 years old. In contrast, the Israeli Air Force usually has fighter pilots as young as 21.) On one mission, during a low-level run, his aircraft was hit by ground fire and he was able to limp back to friendly lines and eject.
After he graduated from Purdue in 1955 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, he remained for his required time in the Naval Reserve and resigned in 1960. He later earned a masters degree in the same subject from USC.
He applied for a position as test pilot with the precursor to NASA, and eventually ended up at what is now the Dryden Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB in California. He flew a variety of aircraft, including chase planes and bombers that carried test aircraft, before piloting such test beds as the famous X-1B and the X-15. During one flight when he was co-pilot in a re-configured B-29 carrying a Douglas Skyrocket, he helped nurse the crippled aircraft, with three of its four engines out, to a safe landing. Armstrong went on to pilot the X-15 seven times, with his maximum altitude above 200,000 feet. Those who lived through these times, like me, remember that this was heady stuff in the news and it was always a popular and widely-covered subject.
Armstrong was selected as part of the second group of astronauts, after the Mercury 7 group, in 1962. He eventually flew as the command pilot in Gemini 8 in 1966 which saw the first successful rendezvous and docking in space, but Armstrong aborted the rest of the mission due to a problem with controlling the Gemini attitude control. This was a controversial call, of course, as all such procedures would be, but Armstrong was fully exonerated.
One item that sticks in my mind was his apparent talent for languages. Before a goodwill tour of South America, he did a personal crash course in Spanish which he carried off with some degree of success, and startled local dignitaries in Paraguay when he addressed them in the local Guaraní.
Armstrong participated in tests for the Lunar Lander for the upcoming moon shots, and was nearly killed when it crashed, successfully ejecting at literally the last second.
Armstrong was slated early in the Apollo programme as a member of Apollo 11, the mission to first land on the moon, partly for the coolness he had shown in earlier crises. He was selected, it has been said, to be the first to set foot on the moon because of his relative lack of ego among the larger-than-life personalities of the other astronauts, and because he was a civilian, to avoid inter-service rivalry between the other military aviators in the programme.
After his truly historic accomplishment, he announced that he had no more intent to fly with NASA and resigned soon thereafter, taking a teaching position for a time at the University of Cincinnati, and then served on the boards of several companies. He returned to NASA service to serve on the investigatory boards for Apollo 13 and Challenger.
Armstrong seemed perplexed at his fame. His understood it, surely, but never quite knew what to do with it. He always maintained that many in the astronaut corps could have been the first to walk on the moon, that his selection was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and that he was only able to do it because of the army of people that worked so hard on the space programme. He eventually stopped signing anything when it became clear that his signature was being sold. He maintained a regular life and made quiet appearances at official functions but always shunned the publicity. The one violation of his rule was early on after his retirement from NASA, when he did a television pitch for Chrysler, extolling their engineering. It struck me as out of place to see such a famous man hawking an automobile in a commercial – it just didn’t fit. He seemed ill at ease and I expect that he realized that same thing too. He never did anything like it again.
In his later years, he came out of his shell to publically complain, with other US space heroes Gene Cernan and James Lovell, about the deterioration of the space programme.
But today, America's leadership in space is slipping. NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing. We will have no rockets to carry humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond for an indeterminate number of years. Congress has mandated the development of rocket launchers and spacecraft to explore the near-solar system beyond Earth orbit. But NASA has not yet announced a convincing strategy for their use. After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.
Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.
The men who have walked on the moon are dying of old age. Neil Armstrong would have us lament that fact surely as much as we lament his passing.
Update: Obama has to get in on the opportunity.