I walked in the house this afternoon to find a heap of emails, text messages, and voicemails about Neil Armstrong’s death. I was shocked. My next thought was that Armstrong will never be truly gone. When he stepped on the Moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired a generation to pursue careers in science. A generation later, children reading about Apollo (including myself) were similarly inspired. I don’t think the effect will wear off in generations to come. But Armstrong’s legacy is so much more than just Apollo 11. His contributions to and role in some of the earliest and most innovative early spaceflight programs are significant. Preserving that legacy will keep him alive and is vital to doing his memory justice.
I can’t possibly sum up all the projects Armstrong was involved in in one article, so here’s a brief look at his career leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing with links to full stories I’ve covered elsewhere.
Armstrong often said that he was first and foremost a pilot, and airplanes were indeed a fascination early in his life. Understandably so. Armstrong grew up in the era when developments in aviation were opening the skies to career non-military pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. And aviation was increasingly accessible to the everyman as pilots offered rides in their airplanes at county fairs.
Armstrong’s first ride was with his father, Stephen, at the local airport near Warren, Ohio. The younger Armstrong was hooked and began devouring books and magazines about aviation. He also built model airplanes. He was most interested in how the different designs flew, something he observed as he threw models out from his bedroom window. But he wasn’t always thinking about flight dynamics; sometimes he just lit the models on fire and threw them to watch the burning mass fall from the sky. Still, he decided while still in grade school that he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer.
Learning to fly was actually part of Armstrong’s goal of becoming an aeronautical engineer. He thought that if he was going to design aircraft, he better know how to fly them. Otherwise how could he know just how a design really worked? He took flying lessons at the Port Koneta airport in Ohio and made his first solo flight at 16. He learned to fly before he could drive.
But there was a shift happening in aviation as Armstrong came of age. The planes he’d grown up building were gone, replaced by metal fuselage aircraft with rocket engines. It was, in many ways, perfect for Armstrong. The new era of jet aircraft meant there were new records to break in the sky and they were engineering challenges. Yes, breaking the sound barrier demanded a skillful pilot at the controls but the aircraft had to be engineered for supersonic flight.
When Armstrong graduated from Purdue University in 1954 as a lieutenant junior grade and certified Naval Aviator, he set he sights on test pilot heaven: Edwards Air Force Base in California. He got there by the end of the year.
Edwards was where history was happening, and where a new era of flight was emerging. It was where Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1 and it was where the X-15 program was based. Called alternatively the first spaceplane and the last experimental aircraft, the X-15 was poised to take pilots higher and flying faster than ever before. The goal was to learn about how spaceplanes would handle the stress of atmospheric entry and landing from space.
Armstrong was one of seven pilots to fly the X-15, unwittingly setting a distance record on his second to last of seven flights. The small aircraft bounced off the atmosphere and carried Armstrong 50 miles away from the runway he was trying to reach. It was a tricky flight, but he made it down safe with some expert flying. Also at Edwards, Armstrong worked on the DynaSoar program. Sometimes called the X-20, DynaSoar was the X-15’s orbital successor. Armstrong, with his dual background in piloting and engineering, was assigned the task of designing the launch abort manoeuvre. He was also heavily involved in the Gemini program while still working at Edwards as an engineer behind the Paraglider Research Vehicle.
In 1962, still flying the X-15 and in line to fly DynaSoar, he was head hunted to join NASA. He was a standout candidate; the agency knew who he was, knew his record as an ace pilot, and wanted him on the space team. The choice came down to personal preference. Did he risk his career as an engineer and test pilot for something that might not pan out? He ultimately, as we know, decided to join NASA’s astronaut corps as one of the “New Nine” in September that year. The reasons behind his decision have never been entirely clear to the public. There’s speculation that the death of his daughter Karen played a role in his decision. She was only two when she died of an inoperable brain tumor. Armstrong was devastated but never talked about her.
In any case it was a fortuitous decision. The DynaSoar program was canceled not long after he joined NASA and all subsequent military-based space programs failed to gain any traction. NASA, as we know, took the cake in space.
Working for NASA, Armstrong applied his background from Edwards to designing simulators for Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. He’d used simulators a lot in preparing for X-15 flights and the DynaSoar flights that he never made. He also helped develop the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), the gangly “flying bedstead” Apollo astronauts used to learn how to land on the Moon. After Apollo 11 splashed down in July 1969, Armstrong said the LLRV had been an invaluable part of his training and no small part of his successful landing. His high praise of the vehicle came in spite of a nearly fatal test flight in 1968. After the incident, he reportedly said that if he couldn’t fly the vehicle there was a problem with it since he could fly anything. And he could. He flew the Gemini 8 spacecraft out of a nearly fatal roll in 1966, saving his life and Dave Scott’s. The pair shared an air sickness bag after splashdown.
After retiring from the astronaut corps, Armstrong returned to his first love. He went back to school and earned a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California then taught the subject at the University of Cincinnati. He maintained a private pilot’s license. He also kept a fairly low profile, rarely if ever signing autographs and choosing his public appearances carefully.
Of Apollo 11’s landing, Armstrong often pointed out that landing on the Moon was a triumph of engineering rather than a triumph of flying. He thought it was fitting that he, as the first man on the Moon, was first and foremost an engineer.