Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot

Armstrong enjoys a cigar in March, 1969. Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

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 Dryden headshot from 1958. He was 28 and looks so much younger! Credit: NASA

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.

Armstrong returned to Purdue after his 1966 Gemini 8 mission and posed with “The Purdettes.” Credit: Purdue University Library

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 in front of the LLRV. Credit: NASA

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.

Still of Armstrong checking out the Dyna-Soar cockpit and spacesuit. Credit: Apogee

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.

Armstrong training on a reaction controls simulator for the X-15 at Edwards. Credit: NASA

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.

Armstrong in the cockpit. 1991. Credit: NASA


  • Jasper says:

    Last picture shows Armstrong in an SR-71 Blackbird, not in the X-15.

  • TF Smith says:

    Nicely done.

    Fair winds and following seas to the commander…

  • marcusmoore says:

    A great summary of Armstrong’s career, Amy; thank you.

    Perhaps I’m biased – my father was an engineer – but there’s something warmly human about those for whom fulfilment comes simply from a sense of ‘a job well done’.

  • tomblvd says:

    And while were being pedantic here, I might as well point out the picture of Armstrong and the Lunar Landing Research wrong, it is actually a Bell 47 helicopter.

    Using the Bell was part of landing training, but the LLRV was a completely different beast.

    Good article though.

  • Mark says:

    Sorry, RWP, Jasper is correct.

  • […] Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel […]

  • […] Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel […]

  • […] Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel […]

  • […] Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel […]

  • weirdo says:

    There is no Bell 47 photo in this article, the two look NOTHING alike. I don’t know why people are going on about the last photo being an SR-71, the caption does not mislabel it, in fact it doesn’t name the aircraft at all.

  • gsosys says:

    You know. I signed into my CodeProject account this morning only to see this caption news. Back in the mid seventies up to early eighties, my father talked a lot about this man – the first man to land on the moon. Also talked a lot about the first man to orbit the earth. I used to think these men had died because I never read news of their public appearances, but only to come and read that Neil Armstrong just died. This man truly belongs to the Order of Invisibly Silent Beings. They Die Not!!!

  • […] Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel […]

  • […] Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel […]

  • Jimbo says:

    Nice job, Amy. Thank you.

  • Gary says:

    SR-71 is a one seter. A-12 is two seater.

    • Mark says:

      Eek, I’ve never seen so much wrong info in so few comments. For example, the A-12 was a 1-seater except for a single trainer version. All SR-71s were 2-seaters. C’mon, folks, let’s try to focus on what’s most important in this article.

  • Mike Kohli says:

    Thanks for the insight. In 2007, he gave one of his rare speeches at the Engineers’ Club of Dayton. He was the quintessential class act. He came not to boast his achievements, which he certainly could, and we would have all loved to heard them, but to talk about being an Engineer before a group of Engineers. He never even mentioned his NASA days. Afterwards, we were all able to meet and talk to him one on one. I don’t think I would have been as awestruck had he been the President. He was an inspiration to me growing up. I only wish he could have come back for our 100th anniversary in 2014. We have an award we bestow on great members of the scientific and engineering community for their lifetime contributions, and last week I received my annual nomination forms for this year’s candidates. I realized from his short speech, he was as much an Engineer as an Astronaut, and after read the article, I can see some of his contributions in engineering. I would appreciate any help in gathering more information on his engineering achievements.

  • Great article Amy. One remarkable aspect of Neil Armstrong’s life was that he may have saved the Gemini space program.

    When the Gemini program tried to perform orbital docking & undocking to a drone orbital target. This was a very important step in the eventual NASA mission of being able to land on the moon. Neil was the commander and pilot for this Gemini flight. While in orbit after the docking/capture occurred one of the positioning thrusters became stuck an open constant fire state. Upon reflection, I think it was the maneuvering thruster on the Gemini capsule. The manned capsule & the orbital drone target began spinning out of control. The astronauts and the captured drone began spinning out of control. Both astronauts were on the verge of blacking out due to the gravitational load of the increasing spin. Neil used nearly all of his re-entry thruster fuel to regain control of his ship leaving barely enough for a successful re-entry. Without using the re-entry fuel for the Gemini capsule both astronauts would have blacked out as the two space vehicles spun faster & faster hurling them further out in space. By using too much re-entry fuel the Gemini capsule would not have been able to safely return to earth. Both of these possible outcomes would have given the Gemini Project a huge bloody nose and two dead American astronauts. Thanks to Neil’s piloting both astronauts lived & the mission failure was downplayed in the media. Next to Apollo 13, Neil’s save of this Gemini mission may have been the most dramatic event ever to occur in outer space.

  • Clay says:

    I, too agree that it’s a great article. I also agree that Neil’s recovery from the deadly Gemini spacecraft spin was significant. A recent independent film I recommend is, ‘Being Neil Armstrong’ wherein the filmmaker shows and reads a letter to him from Neil and comments on the great personality it reveals. In the letter Neil states that his original serious interest in aviation was to be an aircraft designer.

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  • Seelye Martin says:

    Regarding the picture of Armstrong and LLRV, the vehicle is actually a view of the suspended trainer at the LLRF (Lunar Landing Research Facility) at Langley. As evidence, I’m looking at page 146, in the report “Unconventional, Contrary and Ugly: the LLRV”, NASA SP-2004-4535 (available online), which shows a different view of the structure towers in the back of the photo above. Also, look at the landing feet of the vehicle, the LLRV used stick-like oleo struts, the vehicle above has mushroom feet. The above picture is Neil at the Langley facility. Sorry for the nitpicking, it’s a great article and lord knows, he was a great man.

  • […] Nine” surrounding a Gemini capsule, the program they were recruited to fly. Top left is Armstrong, already looking […]

  • […] Reshared post from +Amy Shira TeitelThe U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Monday to rename NASA's aeronautics facility at Edwards Air Force Base in California after Neil Armstrong. I don't normally care about renaming buildings or centres, but this one makes me happy. Armstrong was, after all, first and foremost a pilot and engineer: […]

  • Gary Wighaman says:

    My Dad taught flying at the Wapaconeta airport in 1947-48 in the plane Neil had learned to fly in a PT-17. My Dad was also on the Essex Carrier in WW2 and Neil ended up serving on the Essex 5 years after my Dad. Strange how their path’s crossed but only till Neil walked on the moon did my Dad know where Neil came from since he was just a kid running around the airport in the late 40’s.

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