Neil Armstrong, first man to step on the moon, dies at 82

August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who marked an epochal achievement in exploration with “one small step” from the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969, becoming the first person to walk on the moon, died Aug. 25 in the Cincinnati area. He was 82.

His family announced the death in a statement and attributed it to “complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.”

A taciturn engineer and test pilot who was never at ease with his fame, Mr. Armstrong was among the most heroized Americans of the 1960s Cold War space race. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he is famous for saying as he stepped on the moon, an indelible quotation beamed to a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions.

Twelve years after the Soviet satellite Sputnik reached space first, deeply alarming U.S. officials, and after President John F. Kennedy in 1961 declared it a national priority to land an American on the moon “before this decade is out,” Mr. Armstrong, a former Navy fighter pilot, commanded the NASA crew that finished the job.

His trip to the moon — particularly the hair-raising final descent from lunar orbit to the treacherous surface — was history’s boldest feat of aviation. Yet what the experience meant to him, what he thought of it all on an emotional level, he mostly kept to himself.

Like his boyhood idol, transatlantic aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Mr. Armstrong learned how uncomfortable the intrusion of global acclaim can be. And just as Lindbergh had done, he eventually shied away from the public and avoided the popular media.

In time, he became almost mythical.

Mr. Armstrong was “exceedingly circumspect” from a young age, and the glare of international attention “just deepened a personality trait that he already had in spades,” said his authorized biographer, James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian.

In an interview, Hansen, author of “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” cited another “special sensitivity” that made the first man on the moon a stranger on Earth.

“I think Neil knew that this glorious thing he helped achieve for the country back in the summer of 1969 — glorious for the entire planet, really — would inexorably be diminished by the blatant commercialism of the modern world,” Hansen said.

“And I think it’s a nobility of his character that he just would not take part in that.”

A love of flying

The perilous, 195-hour journey that defined Mr. Armstrong’s place in history — from the liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, to the capsule’s splashdown in the Pacific eight days later — riveted the world’s attention, transcending cultural, political and generational divides in an era of profound social tumult and change in the United States.

As Mr. Armstrong, a civilian, and his crewmates, Air Force pilots Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, hurtled through space, television viewers around the globe witnessed a drama of spellbinding technology and daring. About a half-billion people listened to the climactic landing and watched a flickering video feed of the moonwalk.

At center stage, cool and focused, was a pragmatic, 38-year-old astronaut who would let social critics and spiritual wise men dither over the larger meaning of his voyage. When Mr. Armstrong occasionally spoke publicly about the mission in later decades, he usually did so dryly, his recollections mainly operational.

“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” he said at a millennial gathering honoring the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. Unlike Aldrin and Collins, Mr. Armstrong never published a memoir.

After flying experimental rocket planes in the 1950s at Edwards Air Force Base in California — the high-desert realm of daredevil test pilots later celebrated in author Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” — Mr. Armstrong was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1962 and became the first U.S. civilian to be blasted into space.

In 1966, during his only spaceflight other than Apollo 11, a life-threatening malfunction of his Gemini 8 vehicle caused the craft to tumble out of control in Earth orbit. It was the nation’s first potentially fatal crisis in space, prompting Mr. Armstrong and his crewmate to abort their mission and carry out NASA’s first emergency reentry.

His skill and composure were put to no greater test, though, than in the anxious minutes starting at 4:05 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, July 20, 1969. That was when the lunar module carrying Mr. Armstrong and Aldrin, having separated from the Apollo 11 capsule, began its hazardous, nine-mile final descent to the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

Collins, waiting in lunar orbit, could only hope that the two would make it back.

The lunar module, or LM (pronounced lem), was dubbed “Eagle.” Its 1969 computer, overtaxed during the descent and flashing alarm lights as it fell behind on its work, guided the spiderlike craft most of the way to the surface.

In the last few thousand feet, however, Mr. Armstrong, looking out a window, saw that the computer had piloted Eagle beyond its targeted landing spot. The craft was headed for a massive crater surrounded by boulders as big as cars.

Mr. Armstrong, as planned, took manual control of the LM at 500 feet. Standing in the cramped cockpit, piloting with a control stick and toggle switch, he maneuvered past the crater while scanning the rugged moonscape for a place to safely put down.

Although the world remembers him best for walking on the moon, Mr. Armstrong recalled his time on the surface as anticlimactic, “something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable.” Flying the LM was “by far the most difficult and challenging part” of the mission, he told a group of youngsters in a 2007 e-mail exchange.

The “very high risk” descent was “extremely complex,” he wrote, and guiding the craft gave him a “feeling of elation.”

“Pilots take no particular joy in walking,” he once remarked. “Pilots like flying.”

‘One giant leap’

As he and Aldrin kept descending, balanced on a cone of fire 240,000 miles from Earth, the LM’s roaring engine kicked up a fog of moon dust, distorting Mr. Armstrong’s depth perception and clouding his view of the surface.

Meanwhile, the descent engine’s fuel — separate from the fuel that would later power the ascent engine on their departure from the moon — dwindled to a critical level.

“Quantity light,” Aldrin warned at just under 100 feet. This meant that Mr. Armstrong, according to NASA’s instruments, had less than two minutes to ease the LM to the surface or he would have faced a frightful dilemma.

He would have had to abort the descent, ending the mission in failure at a cost of immense national prestige and treasure, or he would have had to risk a sort of crash landing after the fuel ran out — letting the LM fall in lunar gravity the rest of the way down, hoping the slow-motion plunge wouldn’t badly damage it.

Finally, with 50 seconds to spare, the world heard Aldrin say, “Contact light,” and Eagle’s landing gear settled on the lunar soil. Their precarious, 12-minute descent into the unknown left Mr. Armstrong’s pulse pounding at twice the normal rate.

Humanity listened, transfixed. “Houston, Tranquility base here,” Mr. Armstrong reported. “The Eagle has landed.” The response from mission control was filled with relief: “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

About 61 / 2 hours later, Mr. Armstrong, soon to be followed by Aldrin, climbed down the ladder outside the LM’s hatch as a television camera mounted on the craft transmitted his shadowy, black-and-white image to hundreds of millions of viewers.

How Mr. Armstrong wound up commanding the historic flight had to do with his abilities and experience, plus a measure of good fortune.

Months earlier, when he had been named Apollo 11 commander, NASA envisioned his mission as the first lunar landing — yet no one could be sure. Three other Apollo flights had to finish preparing the way. If any of them had failed, Apollo 11 would have had to pick up the slack, leaving the momentous first landing to a later crew.

Why the space agency chose Mr. Armstrong, not Aldrin, for the famous first step out of the LM had to do with the two men’s personalities.

Publicly, NASA said the first-step decision was a technical one dictated by where the astronauts would be positioned in the LM’s small cockpit. But in his 2001 autobiography, Christopher C. Kraft Jr., a top NASA flight official, confirmed the true reason.

Aldrin, who would struggle with alcoholism and depression after his astronaut career, was overtly opinionated and ambitious, making it clear within NASA why he thought he should be first. “Did we think Buzz was the man who would be our best representative to the world, the man who would be legend?” Kraft recalled. “We didn’t.”

The stoic Mr. Armstrong, on the other hand, quietly held to his belief that the descent and landing, not the moonwalk, would be the mission’s signature achievement. And it didn’t matter to him whether the Earthbound masses thought differently.

“Neil Armstrong, reticent, soft-spoken and heroic, was our only choice,” Kraft said.

As for his famous statement upon stepping off the ladder, Mr. Armstrong said he didn’t dwell on it much beforehand, that the idea came to him only after the landing.

He would always maintain that he had planned to say “a man.” Whether the “a” was lost in transmission or Mr. Armstrong misspoke has never been fully resolved. As his boots touched the lunar surface at 10:56:15 p.m. Eastern, the world heard:

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Ever the precise engineer, Mr. Armstrong later said that if it were up to him, history would record his immortal words with an “a” inserted in parentheses.

The ultimate mission

Neil Alden Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930, outside the little farming town of Wapakoneta in western Ohio. From the morning in 1936 when his father, an auditor of county records, let him skip Sunday school so the two could go aloft in a barnstorming Ford Trimotor plane near their home, the boy was hooked on aviation.

He got his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday, before he was legally old enough to go solo in an automobile.

After a few semesters at Purdue University, he left for Navy flight training in 1949, eventually becoming the youngest pilot in his fighter squadron on the aircraft carrier USS Essex. He flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War and was shot down once before his tour of duty ended and he went back to Purdue.

After earning an aeronautical engineering degree in 1955, he joined NASA’s forerunner, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and was soon rocketing in the stratosphere, pushing the boundaries of aviation in ­missilelike research planes.

In 1959, at the beginning of the Mercury project, which would soon blast the first American into space, NASA chose its storied “original seven” astronauts from the ranks of active-duty military fliers. Mr. Armstrong, who was less than enthusiastic about the program, remained at Edwards as a civilian test pilot.

Then, in 1962, his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, died of brain cancer. Mr. Armstrong’s grief “caused him to invest [his] energies in something very positive,” his sister recalled in an interview with Hansen. “That’s when he started into the space program.”

Not long after Karen’s death, when NASA recruited its second group of astronauts, about 250 test pilots applied, and Mr. Armstrong was among the nine who made the cut. Most took part in the Earth-
orbiting Gemini missions of the mid-1960s, refining flight procedures that would be needed later in the moon-bound Apollo program.

Mr. Armstrong’s harrowing Gemini 8 flight, in March 1966, was aborted hours into its three-day schedule after the spacecraft began toppling end-over-end, pinwheeling so violently that Mr. Armstrong, the commander, and crewmate David Scott were in danger of blacking out, which almost surely would have been fatal.

A malfunctioning thruster was the culprit. “I gotta cage my eyeballs,” Mr. Armstrong remarked, deadpan, as he and Scott, their vision blurred, struggled to cut short their flight. NASA officials were impressed by Mr. Armstrong’s handling of the crisis, and three years later they entrusted him with command of the ultimate mission.

A very private life

After weeks of hoopla surrounding Apollo 11’s return — a ticker-tape parade, a presidential dinner, a 28-city global goodwill tour — Mr. Armstrong worked in NASA management for two years, then joined the University of Cincinnati’s engineering faculty.

“We were not naive, but we could not have guessed what the volume and intensity of public interest would turn out to be,” he said of his worldwide celebrity.

Over the ensuing decades, Mr. Armstrong, a solitary figure, warded off reporters’ efforts to penetrate his privacy until most gave up or lost interest. Unhappy with faculty unionism, he resigned from the university in 1979 and spent the rest of his working life in business, amassing personal wealth as an investor and a member of corporate boards.

Although he was loath to exploit his fame, Mr. Armstrong signed on as a pitchman for Chrysler in his waning months as a professor, appearing in ads for the nearly bankrupt automaker, including one that aired during the Super Bowl in January 1979.

He said he agreed to the deal mainly because it involved an engineering consultancy and because he wanted to help a beleaguered U.S. company buffeted by imports and rising foreign oil prices. The arrangement was short-lived, however, and afterward Mr. Armstrong repeatedly turned down opportunities to endorse products.

Hansen, now an aerospace historian at Auburn University, said Mr. Armstrong felt awkward taking credit for the collective success of 400,000 employees of the space agency and its Apollo contractors. In 2003, Hansen recorded 55 hours of interviews with Mr. Armstrong after years of coaxing him to cooperate on a biography.

He was not a recluse, as some labeled him. In 1986, for instance, he was vice chairman of the commission that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

But that was a rare step into the spotlight. As a rule, Mr. Armstrong was extremely choosey about his public appearances, limiting them mostly to aerospace-related commemorative events and to other usually low-key gatherings that piqued his interest, such as meetings of scientific and technical societies.

“The lunar Lindbergh,” he was dubbed for his refusal to grant interviews to journalists. His remoteness also irked some NASA officials, who had vainly hoped that Mr. Armstrong would become a forceful public advocate for the funding of space exploration.

“How long must it take before I can cease to be known as a spaceman?” he once pleaded. Yet by the time he retired in 2002, to leisurely travel and enjoy his grandchildren, the “First Man” finally had outlived the nation’s fascination with him, and he could often walk down a street in blissful anonymity.

His 38-year marriage to the former Janet Shearon ended in divorce in 1994. Later that year, he married Carol Knight, a widowed mother of two teenagers. Besides his wife, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Eric and Mark; two stepchildren; a brother; a sister; and 10 grandchildren.

“Looking back, we were really very privileged to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself, and what he might become, and where he might go,” Mr. Armstrong said in a 2001 NASA oral history project. “So I’m very thankful.”

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