Heroes of Space: Neil Armstrong

Discover how a boy with a fascination for aviation went on to be the first man to set foot on the Moon

Armstrong’s interest in flying began at a very early age. His father took him to the Cleveland Air Races at the age of two, and he flew in a Ford ‘Tin Goose’ aircraft at the age of six. As a schoolboy, he made model planes, collected books on aviation and even took odd jobs in order to fund flying lessons.

He earned his flight certificate by the age of 16 – before he had even learnt how to drive. His interest in flight led him to pursue a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Purdue University, IN. He studied under a scholarship, which stipulated three years of service in the US Navy during his degree.

Armstrong was called up in 1949, and underwent 18 months of flight training, and by his 20th birthday he was a qualified naval aviator. From 1951, Armstrong saw action in the Korean War. He flew 78 missions over Korea, earning several medals for naval service. He left the US Navy after the war and returned to university to complete his degree.

After his graduation in 1955, Armstrong became a research test pilot, during which time he flew more than 200 different types of aircraft. His extensive flight experience saw him selected for the ‘Man In Space Soonest’ (MISS) programme with the US Air Force.

In 1966 Armstrong served as command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission – which was the first mission during which two vehicles docked in space – and just two years later, he was selected as the commander for the game-changing Apollo 11 mission heading to the Moon.

Having spent a year learning to pilot a modified version of the Lunar Module on Earth, he and two colleagues departed for the Moon on 16 July 1969. The Lunar Module landed on the surface of the Moon on 20 July and, at 10.56pm EDT, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on an extraterrestrial body, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” (Armstrong’s ‘a’ was not picked up very well on the recording and so the quote is more widely known without it).

Buzz Aldrin followed him onto the surface 20 minutes later, and the pair then spent over two and a half hours conducting experiments and gathering samples. They also erected a plaque and planted a US flag to commemorate the mission.

On re-entering the Lunar Module, Armstrong discovered that the ignition switch had been broken by their spacesuits, and had to restart the craft using a pen to push the circuit breaker.

After splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, the crew were quarantined for 21 days to safeguard against any infection that might have been contracted in space. They then spent 45 days on a tour of the world to celebrate one of mankind’s greatest ever achievements.

After the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong retired from spaceflight and took a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati, OH. He continued to work for NASA as well though, and assisted in the investigations following the Apollo 13 and Challenger disasters.

The Big Idea

In 1969, Neil Armstrong was commander of a three-man mission to the Moon – Apollo 11. Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”, were not planned until the Lunar Module had touched down.

In interviews he later stated that he thought the chances of a successful touchdown were so small that planning what to say in advance was unnecessary.

In their footsteps…

Chris Hadfield

In March 2013, Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian commander of the ISS. Hadfield describes watching the lunar landing in 1969 as a “watershed moment” and admired Armstrong for his “quiet accomplishment”. There was no space programme in Canada when Hadfield was a child, but Armstrong inspired him to pursue his dream.

Sally Ride

An inspiration herself, Sally Ride was the first US woman in space. In the early days of space travel, NASA recruited mostly military pilots for their missions, but as missions became ever-more advanced, the need to take scientists to space became apparent. Physicist Ride was recruited and flew two missions aboard Challenger.

Top 5 Facts

  • War hero 
    While flying in the Korean War, Armstrong’s F9F Panther was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He collided with a pole and part of the wing was ripped off, but luckily he wasn’t injured.
  • Space Scout
    As a child, Armstrong was a Boy Scout. On his way to the Moon, he sent a message to the Scouts back on Earth.
  • Hated the limelight
    Armstrong stayed out of the public eye after his return from the Moon, refusing to sign autographs and turning down many advertising offers.
  • Awards and honours
    Armstrong is one of the most honoured men in history and received several awards in his lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom – which is the highest civilian accolade in the United States.
  • Frequent flyer 
    During his time as a test pilot, Armstrong logged over 1,000 hours of flights, and throughout his career flew over 200 different types of aircraft.

 This article was originally published in How It Works issue 51, written by Laura Mears 

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