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  Armstrong's Code

By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, July 11, 1999; Page W10

It was an autumn day in 1978, and Neil Armstrong had been back on planet Earth for almost 10 years. A middle-aged man with a bit of a paunch, thinning hair and a need for spectacles, he was at work on his farm near Lebanon, Ohio, a terrestrial dream of rolling pasture with a brook running through it and cows grazing under big skies. As he jumped off the back of his grain truck, he caught his wedding ring on a latch, shredded his finger and tore off the tip.

"Instead of screaming and running for a doctor, he scooted around until he found his finger," a friend recalls. He put it on ice, then "got in his car and drove" to a nearby hospital.

Eventually, microsurgery specialists at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky., managed to stitch two arteries and five veins, restore blood circulation and feeling. But the finger was a bit redder than the rest of his hand, and, for a time, he massaged it as the doctor advised, a practice some mistook for a nervous tic. He tried to convince reporters the injury was not news.

Solitary, self-sufficient, cool under fire and so taciturn that he is apt to be misunderstood, Armstrong climbed more carefully out of another sort of vehicle and into the history books 30 years ago this month. An audience estimated at 500 million watched on television and millions more tuned in by radio as Armstrong became the first human to step onto an alien world.

At few other moments has one person become the fulcrum of such weighty imperatives -- to win a famous victory for America and vindicate a vast investment of national treasure, to penetrate a hostile frontier, to master a new technology, to navigate a harrowing descent to the unknown -- all in the glare of rapt global attention. By the time he landed in the Sea of Tranquility, the country boy from Ohio had already spent most of his adult life in jobs where intensity of focus and the threat of violent death were part of his daily routine. He was used to all of that. It was, instead, the loss of privacy that appalled him. He loved to fly, and he loved his country, and in the name of those passions he was willing to risk not only his hide but a piece of his soul.

Only a piece, however -- a mere finger's worth -- and no more.

Twelve Americans walked the barren moonscape from 1969 to 1972. But Armstrong, 68, remains unique in his firstness -- and in his aloofness ever since. He holds a record that can never be broken but that might, in other hands, have been tarnished. He can seem arrogant, cold and as distant as the lunar far side. He grants no interviews these days, attends public functions only rarely. Unlike his crew mates, he has written no memoir. He left a university teaching job abruptly in the middle of the school year. Five years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the moon landing, he declined to participate in a parade in his honor in his own home town. Yet he has occasionally rocketed back into view in unexpected ways -- popping up, for example, in a high-visibility ad campaign for Chrysler.

Those who know him say he is a smart and intensely private, even shy, man determined to live life on his own terms despite having floated down that ladder into the public domain. Whether as an astronaut, naval combat aviator, test pilot, civil servant, engineer, absent-minded professor, gentleman farmer, businessman, civic booster, amateur musician, husband or father, Neil Armstrong has followed his own code.

He studied the lesson of Charles Lindbergh, another proud and isolated 20th-century pioneer out of the heartland, who struggled with fame and was almost destroyed by it. Armstrong, for the most part, has steered clear of celebrity's temptations and pitfalls. Since imprinting those crisp, tractor-tread footprints in the moon dust, he has taken care to cover his tracks. He politely declined a written request to be interviewed for this story, saying in a note, "I am comfortable with my level of public discourse." But he has left scattered signs and clues to the motives and character of an American original, a man willing to surrender his life but not his privacy.

Wapakoneta, Ohio, population 10,300, is a quiet farming town 115 miles north of Cincinnati, transected by railroad tracks and the Auglaize River. Its quaint older buildings are increasingly engulfed at the margins by strip malls, truck stops and whizzing transport. A huge, brightly colored mural on a boarded-up storefront dominates Auglaize Street, the main drag, showing a montage of images of its most famous native son: a smiling Neil Armstrong in his spacesuit, a little rocket, a flag slanting against the blackness of space.

Neil Alden Armstrong was born a few miles to the southwest, out on the windswept limestone prairie -- then, as now, an outsider. From the time he was a small boy, it was clear that he was smart, insular and addicted to flying. When he was 6, his father took him on his first plane ride -- aboard a Ford Trimotor that was barnstorming through the region. Father and son sneaked away without telling Mom they were skipping Sunday school.

One of the first books Neil ever read was about the Wright brothers, who had cobbled up the designs for the first aircraft in their workshop in nearby Dayton. He was soon spending much of his time building balsa wood models from kits, eventually engineering his own wind tunnel for flight-testing them.

At 15, Neil started hitchhiking to the airport to take flying lessons with money he earned working at various odd jobs. On his 16th birthday -- before he had a license to drive a car -- he had earned his student pilot's license.

Neil's classmates summed him up this way in the 1947 Blume High School yearbook: "He thinks, he acts, 'tis done."

He won a Navy scholarship that paid his way through Purdue University, where he studied aeronautical engineering. But his sojourn there was interrupted when the Navy called him to active duty at age 19 to serve in the Korean War. In training at Pensacola, Fla., he chose single-engine fighters because, his mother remembered him explaining, "Mom, I didn't want to be responsible for anyone else."

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 Janet 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 recent rains for a planned X-15 landing there. Armstrong insisted 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 Thompson, chief engineer at the NACA facility, Armstrong was copiloting a B-29, from which a test rocket would be launched, when a runaway propeller came off 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 about 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 sank 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.

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 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."

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 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 a late-night schmooze session 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."

Calling Armstrong taciturn would be an understatement, Aldrin concluded. In his book Men From Earth he said he thought Armstrong had worked his way through his career "carefully watching everything he did and said."

Colleagues found all three Apollo 11 crew mates laconic -- "the quietest crew in manned space flight history," one said at the time. After they had buckled themselves into their seats before their giant Saturn rocket thundered off its pad at Cape Kennedy, there was 30 minutes of dead silence. Flight director Clifford Charlesworth had earlier speculated about Armstrong's first words from the surface: "I imagine that he'll call Houston and say: 'We've landed.'"

"Pilots take no special joy in walking," Armstrong once told a group of well-wishers at an air show who wanted to hear what it had been like to walk on the moon. "Pilots like flying."

For many citizens of Earth, the riveting television moment, and the focus of headlines the next morning, was that first step. But for Neil Armstrong, the moment of exhilaration and relief had come almost seven hours earlier, when he piloted his craft to a safe landing. That "was a real high in terms of elation," he said later. "It marked the achievement that a third of a million people had been working for a decade to accomplish."

Landing was the hard part. As they went into their descent over the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin knew that if they wanted to live, they had to keep their ship -- the Eagle -- in good enough condition that it could take off again and rendezvous with Collins and the command module Columbia, orbiting some 60 nautical miles above them.

They stood inside the Eagle's closet-size cabin, legs braced slightly apart, sealed inside pressure suits, looking out triangular windows as they felt the onset of lunar gravity after four days of weightlessness. At 33,000 feet above the surface, lights started flashing, alarms going off unexpectedly. Ground controllers soon reported to the tense astronauts that this was a cry for help from their onboard computer, which was trying to handle too much data and falling behind. At that point, "I felt that first hot edge of panic," Aldrin wrote later.

At 5,000 feet, Armstrong took partial manual control of the gangly, buglike lander, as planned. But -- unbeknown to ground controllers -- as he looked out the window he noticed that the automated targeting system was carrying the craft toward a crater strewn with boulders the size of cars. Time seemed to speed up. Now he was manipulating a hand-control stick and flicking a toggle switch, trying to fly clear of the danger zone while searching for a clean landing spot. All of this consumed extra fuel and he was running low. Moreover, the lander's thrusters were kicking up "a transparent sheet of moving dust," he said later. "It was a little bit like landing an airplane when there's a real thin layer of ground fog, and you can see things through the fog. However, all this fog was moving at a great rate, which was a little bit confusing."

He felt the craft rocking, skidding through space as its thrusters adjusted its position. (Later he would tell NASA debriefers, "I don't think I did a very good job of flying the vehicle smoothly in that period of time. I felt I was a little bit erratic." But the analysts, going over his every move second by second, would report that his maneuvers were "well within the design control regime despite his apology.")

As Armstrong concentrated on the job of landing in moon fog, Aldrin called out numbers from the radar: "Four hundred feet [altitude], down at nine [feet per second] . . . Two hundred feet, 4 1/2 down . . . Forty feet, down 2 1/2, kicking up some dust." At this point Houston radioed them they had 50 seconds of descent fuel left. Armstrong balanced his unwieldy craft on a cone of fire from his descent engine, sidling sideways over the thinning field of boulders. After an agonizing wait, Aldrin uttered the words: "Contact light."

At touchdown, NASA measured Armstrong's pulse at 150 beats per minute. You can hear the emotion in the recording of the Apollo commander's words of confirmation: "Houston, uh . . ."

Here he paused, staring out through his visor at the deceptively benign-looking moonscape. The quaver in his voice was still discernible when he continued, identifying the landing spot in a way that he believed would evoke the tradition of human explorers over the centuries:

"Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

This was 4:17:42 p.m. EDT.

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 6 1/2 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 21/2 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?"

Back on Earth, the Apollo 11 crew found conditions even more surreal than on 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, the president of the United States was 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, Chappaquiddick, 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.

"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 Ronald 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."

Armstrong's first day as a professor attracted reporters and photographers to the engineering building. Once his 18 students were inside the classroom and the clock ticked past 2 p.m., he slammed the door shut. "He was pretty nervous . . . but that was only natural," recalls Dave Burrus, then a third-year engineering student. "When the class was over, the hall had filled up with reporters. I was the last one out, along with Jack Lippert . . . [Armstrong] had his hand on the doorknob and he pushed us out as fast as possible, and slammed the door shut again."

Armstrong "was very good working with kids," Burrus adds. "We designed an aircraft [on paper] under Neil's direction." In one of his classes, Armstrong "actually took kids up on flights . . . These guys actually got to fly with him in a little twin-engine plane."

Armstrong had an office in Rhodes Hall, and several colleagues recalled that students would come and stand on one another's shoulders at the window, trying to catch a glimpse. "That bothered Neil," Huston says. "But once the shine wore off, he blended right in."

Some UC faculty members dismissed the former astronaut at first as a mere show pony with no doctorate. They "eventually accepted him," says Al Kuettner, then director of public affairs at the university. But the conservative Armstrong struggled to steer clear of campus politics and stay out of the unionized faculty's bargaining unit, Huston says. "He was very conscientious," he says. "He wanted to do the right thing, whatever was expected of him." For example, Armstrong apparently felt that part of his lingering duty to NASA was to sign autographs. "He'd have a huge stack of 8x10 glossies he felt obligated to sign . . . And every day, he'd spend an hour or two writing these. He'd whip 'em out. He did it slavishly."

At the same time, university officials were aware of Armstrong's deep wariness and suspicion. Cautioning a colleague about importuning Armstrong to attend a planned event in 1979, Kuettner wrote: "Mr. Armstrong . . . can smell exploitation a mile."

Ed Bridgeman, then chief of the university police, was responsible for erecting what he calls "buffers" to shield the former astronaut so he could get his work done. "A lot of people just wanted to touch him," says Bridgeman.

Armstrong in some ways fit the mold of the absent-minded professor, Bridgeman says. The ex-astronaut once forgot to set the brake on his car, which rolled over an embankment into another car. And at least three times, Bridgeman remembers, he had to return Armstrong's pipe and tobacco pouch after he went off and left them. The pouch was embossed in gold with the Apollo emblem and the names of the crew.

An engineering department colleague of Armstrong's, who asked not to be named, recalls going to lunch with him at the Skyline Chili parlor. If autograph seekers spotted the moon man, "he would always be very polite, but then excuse himself whether his lunch was done or not. He'd go out in the car and wait" until his companions were finished eating. "If you ask me, he's one of the few people in the world who could have handled this."

The farm seemed to be an important part of Armstrong's sense of balance. A friend once explained Armstrong's devotion to the place this way: "You understand that you're a short-term phenomenon, like the mosquitoes that come in the spring and the fall. You get a perspective on yourself. You're getting back to the fundamentals of the planet. Neil feels that way, because we've talked about it."

Residents, and the occasional reporter, would spot Armstrong tooling around Lebanon in a pickup truck, waving back at someone now and then, stopping at the feed store, or the ice cream parlor, or the historic hotel with the elegant restaurant. But these sightings were rare and fleeting. "I don't want to be a living memorial," he told British journalists who trailed him to his farm from a Lebanon grocery store.

Armstrong left the university abruptly on New Year's Day 1980. He declined to comment at the time, and the only reason he's ever given for leaving is that he felt it was time to move on and do other things. But colleagues suspect it was because of his continuing discomfort with campus politics and the union question. "It was sudden, as far as we were concerned. I had to pick up a design class he was scheduled to teach," says colleague Gary Slater. "He didn't explain, and I didn't ask. Neil was the kind of person you didn't ask those questions. But I guess the ivory tower was not everything it was cracked up to be."

"My Vacation"

By Neil Armstrong

Nine summers ago, I went for a visit,

To see if the moon was green cheese.

When we arrived, people on earth asked: "Is it?"

We answered: "No cheese, no bees, no trees."

It hasn't been all solitude for Neil Armstrong. He has surfaced at surprising times in surprising circumstances. He wrote the lines of verse above, for example, at the request of a syndicated children's feature to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Apollo 11.

But even such a whimsical foray could turn sour. Not long after the poem ran in several newspapers, Armstrong wrote to the university's public affairs office: "Under no circumstances would I again assist the [syndicate]. I think they took considerable advantage of my good nature. Also, they misprinted the poem."

In a rare 1979 interview with the Cincinnati Post, Armstrong said the problem with accommodating the demands of the media was that it is too time-consuming. "The only thing I've done is say, gee, I'm not going to spend all day every day with every guy who's trying to put a book together, put a magazine article together or put a newspaper feature together." He added, "I think the interview is the worst form of information transfer, because it's all hip shoot."

At the end of the interview, he asked for just one favor: "Don't print it."

His most startling departure from the norm had come that same year, when he debuted as a TV pitchman for Chrysler during the Super Bowl. There he was, against a stark, black backdrop, hands in his pockets, saying, "In the Apollo program, I acquired a respect for the ability of Chrysler Corporation engineering to help solve the incredible problems of space travel. Now I've seen what they've done for cars." As he talked, the lights came up to reveal a field of cars.

An Armstrong relative says Neil's father, a confirmed GM man, expressed surprise at the move, as did many friends and neighbors who had worked to shield him from public attention.

Armstrong defended the appearance, for which he received an undisclosed sum. "I've worked in some commercial arrangements off and on, on kind of a modest basis," he told the Cincinnati Post. "I've taken the position that, if the right situation came along, where I thought I could be of significant help . . . and it would not jeopardize my honesty . . ." He praised Chrysler's "long history of solid engineering," adding, "I have to be honest and say it was kind of a challenge to try to help Chrysler get out of the hole. They lost a bundle of money last year. And I think it's very important to the country as a whole that we not be a one-automobile-company country."

The Chrysler campaign was less than a success, according to Conrad. "The TV ad was a real flop," he says. The fee for Armstrong's services has never been revealed, but Conrad adds, "I guarantee you, they didn't get him cheap. Neil's a pretty good businessman."

Which is another aspect of Armstrong's code. While no one could accuse him of exploiting his first-on-the-moon status to its maximum earning potential, Armstrong has prospered quietly. He is chairman of the board of AIL Systems, a defense electronics company in New York, is a member of seven other boards of directors and previously has served on numerous boards, including that of United Airlines' parent company. He played a major role as head of a technical committee, Conrad says, providing an engineering analysis that affected a major investment by United.

Since 1989, he has also served on the board of the Thiokol Corp. (now Cordant Technologies Inc.), which produces the solid-fuel rocket boosters for the space shuttle. A design flaw in the boosters caused the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which killed the crew of seven. Armstrong was appointed to the presidential commission that investigated the disaster. Robert Hotz, another commission member, told reporters it was Armstrong who had led a fight to couch the report's findings in clear, easily understood, nontechnical language.

Armstrong has materialized in other select venues over the years: returning to the University of Cincinnati to give the commencement address in 1982; at a scientific youth congress in Mainz, Germany; at a Sarah Vaughan concert in 1988, where he narrated Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" and conducted a Sousa march; throwing out the first ball at a baseball game in Houston; and at an information technology symposium in Athens, Greece, last summer, where he noted that today's cheap laptops dramatically surpass the technology of Apollo 11.

His personal life has remained largely invisible to outsiders. He had a heart attack in 1991, but he recovered and friends note that he seems to be in fine health these days.

In 1994 he and Jan quietly ended their 38-year marriage. They had the judge seal the record temporarily, attracting minimum press attention. While the divorce records did not reveal his net worth, Jan's share of the real and personal property totaled about $2.24 million, plus additional real estate of unspecified value and spousal support payments of up to $6,000 a month.

A short time later, Armstrong married Carol Knight, 15 years his junior, and moved into her home in Indian Hills, an affluent suburb of Cincinnati. Friends describe her as chatty, very friendly. "She's a super gal," says Conrad, who bumped into the Armstrongs a few weeks ago at a Beverly Hills party. "We had a nice conversation" catching up on each other's activities, he says. "I guess Neil is doing a lot of traveling."

Perhaps the most reliable sightings of Armstrong occur every few years on significant Apollo anniversaries, when he appears with fellow astronauts for ritual NASA events. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins have tentatively agreed to attend several gatherings in the next two weeks, including July 20 appearances in Washington, marking the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. NASA says there is no plan for Armstrong to participate in a formal press conference. At the last one in 1989, a reporter accused him of having "disappeared off the face of the Earth." Armstrong's reply combined a touch of slyness and mock bewilderment: "Gosh, I didn't know that I did that. I was here in Washington for a time, running the aeronautics program of NASA. And then I went back to the university and they -- the folks at the university -- would be very surprised that they're considered to be 'off the face of the Earth.' "

When pressed, he added evenly, "Well, I was pleased doing the things I was doing. That's the sum and substance of it."

The futuristic white dome rises from a green hillside peppered with dandelions, hard by Interstate 75 as it sweeps past Wapakoneta. The Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum is temporarily closed on this day to make ready for the upcoming Apollo anniversary. Past the workmen, the sawdust, the exhibits, the shelves of model airplane kits, shuttle replicas and mission patches, two of Armstrong's old spacesuits, one from Gemini and one from Apollo, stand at ease around a long table in a storeroom, as if on a coffee break. They are getting restuffed.

Overseeing the work is John Zwez, a relative of the Armstrong family who runs the museum, funded in part by local residents and operated by the private, nonprofit Ohio Historical Society. "We're inundated constantly with people wanting to talk to Neil," he says. "Sometimes they think I'm him, or ask if he's here . . . He wouldn't have time to live" if he tried to deal with all the requests.

Zwez, a generation younger than Armstrong, grew up hearing tales of Neil's exploits at Armstrong family reunions. One recurring theme: "He's always been the way he is. The moon landing didn't change him."

About the most animated Zwez ever saw Armstrong was on the day Neil helped his parents move into a retirement community. "He was giving the museum some of his trophies and awards. He met me there at the house and helped me load up the truck," Zwez remembers. "He actually cracked a joke about politics that time."

Armstrong's visits to Wapakoneta have become rarer since 1990, when both of his parents died. Zwez last saw him in 1994, around the time of the 25th Apollo anniversary, when Neil attended an air show in the area and stopped by the museum for about 30 minutes, long enough for Zwez to introduce him to the staff.

It took White House pressure to persuade Armstrong to attend the museum's grand opening, according to one published account. Armstrong skipped the parade and other festivities in his honor here in 1994, although he made an appearance at the White House with President Clinton a few days later. For the most part, the town takes such slights philosophically. "We realize that the same [dates] we want him to come here, he's obligated to make public appearances for NASA," Zwez says. But a few people resent these absences and argue that the town shouldn't stage a celebration if Armstrong isn't going to show up. "I disagree with that," Zwez says. "When he passes away, we're still going to celebrate the day he landed on the moon."

Still, the minder of the flame finds it tricky keeping the museum current. His most recent photograph of Armstrong, Zwez says, is five years old, taken at a film festival in Italy. "I wouldn't think of asking him" for a new one. Family and friends who stop in from time to time just shrug and say, "You know how Neil is."

Nearer downtown, past the strip mall and the Dairy Queen, is Neil's old neighborhood. Blume High has been converted to apartments, but otherwise the area has changed little since his childhood. His boyhood home at the corner of Benton and Buchanan is a well-kept two-story clapboard painted crisp gray and white, with a flag whipping in the wind and a clanking plaque that reads: "Eagle's Landing, Boyhood Home of Neil Armstrong, First Man to Walk on the Moon."

Karen Tullis, an elementary school principal, lives there and maintains it as a kind of shrine. She knew nothing of the house's history when she bought it 10 years ago, but she has joined the ranks of the Armstrong volunteers, the unbidden protectors of his special place in history. "It's been a great opportunity . . ." she says. "I've met a lot of people as a result."

It almost goes without saying, but Neil Armstrong, so far, isn't one of them.

Kathy Sawyer covers space science and technology for The Post. Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this article.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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