Neil Armstrong Praised as a Reluctant American Hero
Employees at NASA's Kennedy Space Center paused recently to remember Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon and one of America's greatest heroes of exploration. Armstrong died Aug. 25 at the age of 82.
During a brief wreath-laying ceremony on Aug. 31, Bob Cabana, Kennedy's center director, described Armstrong as a role model.
“Neil Armstrong was a true American hero, and one of the nicest gentlemen around," he said. "He was the epitome of what an engineering test pilot should be."
Cabana added that Armstrong was greatly interested in Kennedy's path forward to the future.
"Neil's one small step for man was the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people down on the ground," he said. "His step was only the beginning of a very long journey that we must now continue as we prepare to move even further from our home planet and continue this quest in our exploration of space."
Armstrong's family shared the news of Armstrong's passing following complications from recent cardiovascular procedures:
"Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend," the family statement read. "Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job."
Tributes honoring Armstrong have been numerous.
"Neil was among the greatest of American heroes - not just of his time, but of all time," President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable - that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible."
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also reacted to the loss of a fellow former astronaut.
"Besides being one of America's greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all," Bolden said.
Fellow Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin also honored Armstrong's flying skills.
"I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew," he said.
Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930 on his grandfather's farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio. His passion for flying began at an early age. He moved from building model airplanes to taking flying lessons at 15. While most American teenagers look forward to receiving a driver's license, Armstrong earned his pilot's license before he could drive a car.
Putting his college work aside, Armstrong was a naval aviator from 1949 to 1952, flying 78 combat missions during the Korean conflict. After leaving active duty, he continued serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve until 1960.
Armstrong completed his work at Purdue University in 1955 earning a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering. That same year he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, NASA's predecessor organization, as a research pilot at Lewis Laboratory in Cleveland.
He later transferred to NACA's High Speed Flight Research Station at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. As project pilot, he was in the forefront of the development of many high-speed aircraft, which included flying the X-15 to the edge of space seven times.
In September 1962 Armstrong was offered an opportunity to join NASA's expanding astronaut corps which he accepted without hesitation.
On his first space flight Armstrong was command pilot for Gemini 8 in March 1966. He and David Scott successfully performed the first spacecraft docking in orbit, linking their Gemini capsule with an Agena target satellite, a crucial step in preparing for future trips to the moon.
"Flight, we are docked," Armstrong radioed back to the Mission Control Center in Houston. "It was a real smoothie," he added noting how well things had gone up to that point.
Less than an hour after docking, the Gemini 8 flight became a rough ride.
"We're rolling up and we can't turn anything off," Armstrong calmly reported.
One of the Gemini spacecraft's maneuvering thrusters had stuck open due to an electrical short circuit resulting in an out-of-control rolling motion. After quickly undocking, the tumbling increased to one revolution per second.
Armstrong used re-entry thrusters to regain control of the capsule. Flight rules required a return to Earth after use of the re-entry thrusters, so Gemini 8 was sent to a contingency landing zone in the western Pacific.
After serving as back-up commander to Frank Borman for the first Apollo flight to leave Earth orbit and circle the moon in 1968, Armstrong was selected to command Apollo 11 - the first lunar landing mission.
With much of Earth's population watching, Armstrong, along with lunar module pilot Aldrin and command module pilot Mike Collins, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969.
"Neil and I trained together as technical partners, but were also good friends who will always be connected through our participation in the Apollo 11 mission," Aldrin recently said. "Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us."
Four days after launch, Armstrong and Aldrin entered their lunar module which they had named "Eagle."
"The Eagle has wings," Armstrong said as they undocked from the command module, leaving Collins to continue operations in lunar orbit.
As they descended toward the surface, Armstrong reported to mission control as two program alarms sounded, threatening the mission. Eagle's rudimentary computer system had the memory of one of today's pocket calculators. When it was determined that computer was simply experiencing an overload, they were given a "Go" to continue.
As the Eagle neared the lunar surface, Armstrong noticed the automated system was taking them into a boulder-covered crater the size of a football field. Armstrong took control, manually flying to a smoother spot touching down with less than 15 seconds of fuel remaining.
"Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed," were the words he chose to announce that humans had arrived on the moon.
About six hours later, Armstrong climbed down Eagle's ladder and stepped on to the lunar soil.
"That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind," he said.
"Neil took the small step, but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history," Aldrin said.
Always modest, Armstrong credited those behind the scenes for the mission's success.
"When you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance," Armstrong said in a NASA oral history interview in 2001. "And that's the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off."
Looking to the future, Bolden noted that Armstrong helped pave the way.
"As we enter this next era of space exploration, we do so standing on the shoulders of Neil Armstrong," he said.
While tributes for Armstrong arrived from all areas of the world, his family had a suggestion.
"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."
Bob Granath NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center