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Armstrong's Code


    Janet, Eric and Mark Armstrong
Janet Armstrong, accompanied by sons Eric 12, and Mark, 6, talk to reporters in front of the family home on July 17, 1969. (Corbis)
He flew 78 missions off an aircraft carrier from 1950 to 1952, receiving three air medals. During one of those missions, he collided with an antiaircraft cable, left by the enemy as a booby trap. He lost a wing tip from his F9F fighter but managed to nurse the damaged plane back to friendly territory before he punched the ejection button. Another time, he flew a damaged fighter back to his ship and landed it safely.

Back at Purdue, Armstrong was older — chronologically and psychologically — than his classmates. Among them was a dark-haired doctor's daughter named Jan Shearon, from Chicago. She shared his interest in music and flying but, she would later tell an interviewer, they had known each other for three years before he asked her out. ''He is not one to rush into anything,'' she said.

Not long after he graduated in 1955, Armstrong wangled a job at Edwards Air Force Base in California's high desert, fabled home of the Right Stuff. At the time, it seemed the only place for a hot pilot. On the drive to California, he stopped off at the Wisconsin summer camp where Jan was working and asked her to marry him. Later, she recalled, ''He said if I would marry him, and come along in the car, he'd get six cents a mile for the trip. If I didn't, he'd only get four.'' She demurred. But they were married, finally, in 1956.

At Edwards, Armstrong was one of a new breed of engineer/test pilot hired to work for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner to NASA. It was, he would say later, ''the most fascinating time of my life.'' He not only enjoyed the challenges of flight testing…soaring out of the dry, blow-torch heat of the desert, out of the blue and almost into the black. He also truly loved the intellectual rigors of engineering analysis.

Some of the other fliers mistook Armstrong's shyness and deliberation for coldness. As Tom Wolfe described it in his book The Right Stuff. Armstrong's facial expression ''hardly ever changed. You'd ask him a question, and he would just stare at you with those pale-blue eyes of his, and you'd start to ask the question again, figuring he hadn't understood, and — click — out of his mouth would come forth a sequence of long, quiet, perfectly formed, precisely thought-out sentences, full of anisotropic functions and multiple-encounter trajectories . . . It was as if his hesitations were just data punch-in intervals for his computer.''

Neil and Jan moved away from the tightknit base community and into a relatively isolated cabin among the Joshua trees in the hills above the Pearblossom Highway. In mid-1957, they had the first of their two sons. Because the house had only cold-water plumbing at first, Armstrong said, Jan would bathe Eric ''in a plastic tube in the back yard, after the sun had heated the water.''

Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier, made sport of the mule-headed young flier. A pilot of the old school, he once warned Armstrong that the dry lake bed was too muddy from the recent rains for a planned X-15 landing there. Armstrong insistated that all the data on wind and temperature indicated otherwise. NASA managers wanted Yeager to fly a small plane over and take a look. ''Hell, no!'' he said. But he finally agreed to fly back seat with Armstrong at the controls. As soon as Armstrong set the inspection plane down on the lake bed, its landing gear sank right in. Yeager said his only regret was that, from the back seat, he couldn't see Armstrong's face.

Still, Armstrong excelled at Edwards, displaying steely calm in the face of peril. On one flight, recalled Milton Thomson, chief engineer at the NACA facility,, Amrstrong was copiloting a B-29, from which a test rocket would be launched, when a runaway propeller came of the No. 4 engine, sliced through the bottom of the No. 3 engine cut an oil line, severed flight control cables and sawed into the lower fuselage. Armstrong and the other pilot coaxed the crippled plane back safely to Edwards.

Another time, Armstrong bounced his X-15 off the atmosphere. Coasting out of fuel at three times the speed of sound, he overshot the landing site and found himself out over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena with barely enough momentum to get back to Edwards. As his plane snak below the tops of the trees that grew on the edge of the dry lake bed, he picked out a path between the branches and slid home.

Armstrong's professionalism made him a natural choice for Apollo 11 mission commander, but a preliminary checklist had Aldrin stepping first out the lander door.

In 1962, NASA announced openings for a second group of astronauts to follow the legendary Mercury Seven. It was test pilots only, please, plus a degree in one of the biological sciences or engineering. The 300 who applied were winnowed to nine through a battery of interviews, physicals, and psychological and technical inquisitions. Then-astronaut candidate Michael Collins, handicapping the competition, speculated that ''Neil Armstrong will be on the list unless his physical discloses some major problem . . . He has by far the best background of the six civilians under consideration and he is already employed by NASA.'' ''Space is the frontier,'' Armstrong told a fellow pilot, ''and that's where I intend to go.''

That the first moon landing fell to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins was, to a large extent, the luck of the draw. Had there been more setbacks such as the tragic fire that killed three astronauts inside an Apollo capsule during a ground test in 1967, the lineup could have been far different.

Armstrong himself survived more near-death experiences. In March 1966, he and crew mate Dave Scott went into orbit on the Gemini 8 mission. They had just completed the first successful docking of two vehicles ever achieved in space when their spacecraft started gyrating violently while still attached to the other craft, an unmanned Agena. ''Well, we got serious problems here,'' Armstrong radioed ground controllers. ''We're tumbling end over end and we've disengaged from the Agena.''

NASA later revealed that the craft was spinning at a rate of almost one revolution per second. The astronauts were not only in danger of colliding with the Agena but ''were approaching their physiological limits.'' In the midst of it all, as his vision blurred, Armstrong turned to Scott and said dryly, ''I gotta cage my eyeballs.''

After other measures failed, Armstrong activated the system normally reserved for reentry, effectively aborting the mission. It was a crushing disappointment, but later reports described a ''surprisingly calm pair of astronauts.''

Two years later, Armstrong was maneuvering a moon lander training vehicle when it started spewing black smoke and spinning, 200 feet above ground. He parachuted to safety seconds before the $2.5 million craft crashed and burned. Minutes later, a NASA spokesman reported, he was ''back in the hangar, walking around, discussing the incident.''

    Apollo 11 Astronauts
Armstrong leads Apollo 11 crew members to the van that will take them to the moon launch rocket, July 16, 1969. (AP)
His professionalism made Armstrong a natural choice for Apollo 11 mission commander, but a preliminary checklist had Aldrin stepping first out the lander door, and he lobbied hard to keep that position. The more conventional protocol was for Armstrong, the commander, to exit first. In the end, it seems to have been the layout of the landing module that cinched the matter: The two men in bulky space suits would have found it physically difficult to swap places so that Aldrin could wriggle through the tiny hatch first.

Astronaut Pete Conrad, who died July 9, trained with Armstrong in the Gemini and Apollo programs, said the issue ''never came up until Buzz brought it up.'' Armstrong just let Aldrin's complaints wash over him and allowed Deke Slayton, who ran the astronaut office, to handle the matter, according to Conrad.

Aldrin wrote later about his effort to discuss it with Armstrong. ''Neil hemmed and hawed for a moment and then looked away, breaking eye contact with a coolness I'd never seen in him before. 'Buzz,' he said, 'I realize the historical significance of all this, and I just don't want to rule anything out right now.''' Collins, the most easygoing and personable of the three, describes in his book Carrying the Fire. Aldrin was drinking scotch and complaining loudly about Armstrong's having crashed and burned, figuratively, earlier that day during a simulation — a kind of dress rehearsal for the lunar landing. Armstrong, ''in his pajamas, tousle-haired and coldly indignant,'' confronted Aldrin. Collins speculates that what really triggered the fight was Aldrin's pique over Armstrong's exercising ''his commander's prerogative to crawl out first'' on the moon. But Armstrong, years later, during one of the obligatory Apollo anniversary press briefings for NASA, told reporters flatly that, whatever his crew mates might think, he had ''zero input, no input whatever, into that decision.''


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