The life of Neil Armstrong

On what would have been his 90th birthday, discover the legacy of the first man on the Moon

(Image source: NASA)

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.

A life's work


Neil Alden Armstrong is born in Ohio on 5 August to Stephen Koenig Armstrong and Viola Louise Engel.


Armstrong is called into service during the Korean War, and flies over 75 combat missions.
(Image credit: John Moore)


He graduates with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue University.


Armstrong begins work as an experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base.

(Image credit: NASA)


Janet Elizabeth Shearon and Neil Armstrong marry, and go on to have three children.


After joining the astronaut programme he moves to Houston, TX, with his family

(Image credit: NASA)


As the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission, Armstrong participates in the first docking of two vehicles in space.

(Image credit: NASA)


On 20 July, Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to ever walk on the Moon.

(Image credit: NASA)


Neil Armstrong dies due to complications following heart surgery. His family request that people ‘wink at the Moon’ in his honour.

Neil Armstrong speaking in February 2012 (Image source: NASA)

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

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