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Armstrong's Code

    Astronaut boot
Apollo 11 astronaut boot on the surface of the moon. (Corbis)

The notion of a small step compared with a great leap seemed natural, and Neil Armstrong thought up the line on his own during the 6½ hours between touchdown and stepping out, he said later. He was aware that the occasion called for something beyond engineer-speak. On the ground, his mother told reporters he wanted to say something that included everybody in the world.

What he meant to say was: ''That's one small step for a man,'' but either he misspoke in his excitement or the spotty transmission eliminated the article — ''We'll never know,'' he has said cryptically and it came out: ''That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.''

The momentous hop from the ladder to the surface happened in the waning minutes of prime time — 10:56 p.m. EDT, Sunday, July 20, 1969, with grainy black-and-white TV images beamed to the world live from the moon's surface. Armstrong and Aldrin spent less than 2½ hours outside their moon ship, setting up experiments, collecting rocks, taking pictures. They never ventured more than about 150 feet from the lander, but Armstrong startled some members of the ground team when he bounded out of the camera's field of view to examine an interesting crater.

It was like being on a flood-lit sandlot baseball field at night, he would later tell fellow engineers. You're standing in this dazzling light at ground level, but above you is a stark black sky. Earth appears four times as big as the moon does from Earth, and the oceans and continents — even white clouds — are visible.

Armstrong felt elated when that first step reassured him that we weren't going to sink into the surface,' he said. His most surprising visual impression was the eerie play of color and light. At lunar dawn, the airless moonscape seemed drained of color, but as the sun rose, the moving light was reflected in bright tan. Surprisingly, though, the actual color of the rock when viewed close up was dark or charcoal brown. The horizon, close by, was jagged and outlined with knife-edge sharpness against the black abyss.

Even the laconic pilot/engineer felt the tingle of the moment. As they stood in the flood of light, Armstrong leaned toward Aldrin, clapped his gloved hand on his crew mate's shoulder and said, ''Isn't it fun?''

Lunar Module
The Apollo 11 lunar module prepares to dock with the command module for the return trip to Earth. (AP)
Back on Earth, the Apollo 11 crew found conditions even more surreal than the moon. NASA isolated them in the plush confines of an aluminum trailer on the deck of the USS Hornet, the ship that plucked them out of the Pacific after their capsule splashed down. Soon thereafter, waving and smiling at them through a window. Richard Nixon had flown out to greet the returning heroes. He invited them and their wives to a White House dinner, and asked them if they had gotten seasick.

They were in quarantine, on the remote chance that they might infect Earth with deadly lunar microbes. Inside the trailer, they ate TV dinners, listened to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and played gin rummy. A physician sharing the trailer treated Armstrong for an ear inflammation, but said the three were in generally good shape.

When they got out two weeks later, Armstrong teased that he would feign illness if he saw any cameras. But he couldn't dodge his next obligation: a world tour and months on the rubber-chicken circuit. The Apollo 11 crew addressed a joint session of Congress; then they took off for 28 cities in 25 countries in 38 days. They met the queen of England, Marshal Tito, the pope, the emperor of Japan, the shah of Iran and Generalissimo Franco. The Ohio Dairymen's Association honored Armstrong with his likeness sculpted in 900 pounds of butter.

Although Armstrong and the others owned their places in history, the bloom was already off the moon. Vietnam, Chappaquidick, summers of love and rebellion eclipsed the glow of Apollo. At a NASA press conference in July 1970, Armstrong expressed his disappointment that the foray to the moon had not better inspired those on Earth: ''I had hoped the impact would be more far-reaching . . . We all seem to be sort of tied up with today's problems.'' As for his new status as hero, he said, ''It's not that I feel uncomfortable; it's just that I find there's inadequate time to do all the things I'd like to be doing.''

He paused and noted, ''There has been a drastic change to my life.''

Armstrong coped with the new demands of fame by means of his finely calibrated personal code that, while sometimes mystifying to outsiders, made perfect sense to him. He would do his duty as he saw it, he would be conscientious, he might participate in causes, events and moneymaking ventures that he deemed worthwhile. But he would try to avoid anything that focused on him, his personal life or his celebrity. There have been complaints that the first man on the moon should have been a more aggressive and accessible ambassador for the space program. But crew mate Collins, for one, has supported Armstrong's approach, arguing that Armstrong, more than anyone, seemed to understand his unique role and the need to ration himself.
    Nixon w/Astronauts President Richard Nixon, right, with the Apollo astronauts, from left: Neil Armstrong, ''Buzz'' Aldrin and Michael Collins. (Corbis)

''I think he saw the results of being an idol when he researched Lindbergh's experience,'' says James Lovell, hero of Apollo 13, who trained with Armstrong and has kept in touch with him over the years. ''He didn't want to have his life change. He decided to be very reclusive, but that's also his nature.''

After the world tour ended, Armstrong found himself stuck behind a desk at NASA headquarters here, running the aeronautics office. He had told friends a decade earlier of his interest in academia and his desire to write an engineering textbook. Now he needed a sanctuary as well.

''He basically left NASA because they sent him to Washington and kept trotting him out, sending him to this dinner, that event,'' recalls Conrad. ''I guess he felt obligated to do a certain amount of it, but when he figured he had that square filled in, he was gone.''

Armstrong accepted a post back in his home state, at the University of Cincinnati, an urban campus with a strong aeronautics and space engineering curriculum. In July 1971, the Armstrongs paid $225,000 for a 200-acre dairy farm outside Lebanon, Ohio, about a 30-minute drive from Cincinnati.

University official Ron Huston was one of a small delegation that traveled to Washington to meet the famous astronaut and ease his transition back to Ohio. He remembers trying with some difficulty to engage Armstrong in small talk. ''He seemed like a real shy person. He had a corner office, overlooking the Capitol dome, and he mentioned something about watching pedestrians down on the street and having trouble focusing on them. He said there was something wrong with his eyes. Then he joked that he wouldn't have been able to pass the astronaut physical if NASA had found out . . . We were pumping him, but we didn't get but that little bit out of him.'

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