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Neil Armstrong, whose name took on greater cultural meaning as the living incarnation of the world's capacity for scientific achievement, as evinced in his famous words, "one giant leap for mankind," commanded the Apollo 11 mission to the Earth's moon and became the first human to set foot on it in July 1969. Armstrong's story followed a near-archetypal path, an unassuming small-town boy whose fascination with the possibilities of an age of wonders drew him to achieve the once unimaginable. Able to fly airplanes before he could legally drive a car, he went on to a decorated hitch with the U.S. Navy, seeing action in Korea, then became one of America's foremost jet-propulsion test-pilots. Selected by the National Aerospace Administration (NASA) to be an astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo programs, Armstrong coolly navigated through a potentially disastrous glitch in the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, bespeaking skill and character that NASA would deem paramount for the commander of the Apollo 11 mission, the first to land a manned craft on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong did just that in an internationally broadcast spectacle. Celebrated globally, he nevertheless veered away from public life in his...
Neil Armstrong, whose name took on greater cultural meaning as the living incarnation of the world's capacity for scientific achievement, as evinced in his famous words, "one giant leap for mankind," commanded the Apollo 11 mission to the Earth's moon and became the first human to set foot on it in July 1969. Armstrong's story followed a near-archetypal path, an unassuming small-town boy whose fascination with the possibilities of an age of wonders drew him to achieve the once unimaginable. Able to fly airplanes before he could legally drive a car, he went on to a decorated hitch with the U.S. Navy, seeing action in Korea, then became one of America's foremost jet-propulsion test-pilots. Selected by the National Aerospace Administration (NASA) to be an astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo programs, Armstrong coolly navigated through a potentially disastrous glitch in the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, bespeaking skill and character that NASA would deem paramount for the commander of the Apollo 11 mission, the first to land a manned craft on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong did just that in an internationally broadcast spectacle. Celebrated globally, he nevertheless veered away from public life in his post-NASA years, becoming a professor of engineering, farmer and a businessman. In the 1990s, however, he offered his voice to both documentary and narrative media projects, and re-emerged to appear for a number of 40th anniversary celebrations of the moon-landing. Armstrong remained the rare iteration of someone who quietly set a new bar for human endeavor and went about his life privately, opting out of the frenzied marketplace of the great American cult of celebrity.
He was born Neil Alden Armstrong on Aug. 5, 1930, in Wapakoneta, OH, the first of three children of Viola and Stephen Armstrong. The latter held a position with the Ohio Department of State's auditor's office, a job that required him to work with local county examiners for short stints, which made the family effectively itinerant. They moved 16 times in Neal's first 14 years, and Neil's most omnipresent companions became books. His first year in elementary school alone, by one account, he read over 100 books, and the next year he was reading and comprehending at such an advanced level that he was skipped straight to third grade. He found another constant in the Boy Scouts, eventually earning the Eagle Scout rank, and picked up a hobby of making balsa-wood model planes, which spurred him to read aeronautical magazines at a young age. His father's last job-required move would be back to Wapakoneta, where young Neal, now a soft-spoken teenager, would attend Blume High School. He earned good grades, excelling in math in particular and, though always somewhat shy, spread his wings in extracurriculars, singing in the choir, playing baritone horn in the band and serving on the yearbook staff and in student government. His Boy Scout activities sparked an interest in astronomy, with Armstrong spending time at a local observatory and nurturing his fascination with flight. He trained with former Army pilots at the local airport and obtained his small-plane pilot's license at age 16, before he had a driver's license. Graduating high school at 16, he applied to and was accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but decided to stay closer to home.
Taking advantage of a government program called the Holloway Plan, Armstrong signed up with the U.S. Navy in exchange for its paying his college tuition, and enrolled at Purdue University in Lafayette, IN, where he studied aerospace engineering. The Navy called him up for service in 1949, and he naturally gravitated to the service's air wing, qualifying for carrier landings. In the summer of 1951, he made a jet landing on the USS Essex, was promoted to ensign, and, attached to the 51st Fighter Squadron, shipped off to support U.S. ground troops fighting in the Korean War. Flying an F9F Panther on one mission, he took an anti-aircraft hit and managed to navigate the plane back to friendly territory, where he ejected safely. He wound up flying 78 missions in the Korean theater. At 22, he mustered out. Still a lieutenant with the Naval Reserve, he returned to Purdue, securing his BS in aeronautical engineering in 1955. During that period, he met Janet Shearon, whom he married the next year. Upon graduation, Armstrong took a job as a test pilot with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA, working a stint at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, OH. After a few months there, the couple moved to California, where he flew at NACA's High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base. The couple settled and started a family in nearby Antelope Valley, CA, while Armstrong flew prototypes of the F-100, -101, -105 and 106 fighter jets. Armstrong became an aviation pioneer working on the X-15 project, flying the experimental rocket-jet at speeds of better than 4,000 miles-per-hour and to a height of 207,00 meters. It made him a prime candidate when NASA began assembling its second wave of astronauts for manned space missions. Armstrong joined up with NASA in 1962.
In March 1966, he took his first trip into space on the Gemini 8 mission. Armstrong and fellow astronaut Dave Scott were tasked with implementing the first space rendezvous, hooking up their manned vehicle with a target vehicle, the Agena, on March 16, but all did not go as planned. The merged vehicle began spinning, which continued even when Armstrong disengaged from the Agena. Discovering the problem to be a misfire of one of the Gemini craft's own thrusters, Armstrong shut down the system and re-established control by activating second sets of thrusters intended only for use on re-entry. NASA cut the flight short, but Armstrong proved steely in a potentially deadly and unprecedented, circumstances. NASA's ensuing Apollo Program would build towards President John Kennedy's famous pledge that America would one day go to the moon. NASA named Armstrong commander of the Apollo 11 flight that would achieve that goal, with Buzz Aldrin to be pilot of the Eagle lunar lander vehicle and Mike Collins pilot of the orbital spacecraft. NASA chose Armstrong to be the first man on the moon, according to one biographer, thinking his stoic, humble nature would better enable him to deal psychologically with the inevitable global fame incumbent in the fateful step down. Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, and four days later Aldrin and Armstrong separated the Eagle and made their epoch-making moon landing, with Armstrong taking the first step down off the lander, pronouncing it "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" - in fact a garbling of the pre-scripted statement, establishing it as "one small step for a man..." Upwards of 600 million people watched the landing, the largest TV audience in the history of the medium.
Armstrong and Aldrin logged a total of 21 total hours outside the craft, with Armstrong taking a great deal of footage of Aldrin, for which the former would later be given an honorary membership in the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). Upon their return to Earth, President Nixon bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the most distinguished laurel the U.S. government could give a citizen in peacetime, on the three astronauts, and on August 13 alone, they flew into New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles in succession to receive ticker-tape parades in each city, followed by a 45-day global goodwill tour. The U.S. Postal Service issued a "First Man on the Moon" 10-cent stamp featuring a rendering of Armstrong stepping off the lander, and his canonization veered into show business late that year with his appearance on one of NBC and Bob Hope's periodic variety specials, "The Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around the World with the USO" (1969). Armstrong would make a couple more media appearances the next year, notably in the documentary "Moonwalk One" (1970), which failed to find distribution but became renowned as a classic of the genre. But, true to character, he would largely eschew the limelight in ensuing decades. In 1969, he took the post of deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA, resigning in 1971 to teach engineering at the University of Cincinnati, which he did for eight years, in addition to working his own farm near the southern Ohio city of Lebanon. It was in the latter capacity that Armstrong lost a finger after getting his wedding ring caught on a tractor he was operating. Armstrong reportedly collected the finger, refrigerated it until he could secure medical attention and soon enough had it reattached at a hospital in Louisville, KY. He agreed to appear on the TV special, "A Salute to American Imagination" (CBS, 1978), but, weary of the myopic cultural focus on his astronautic feat, he would soon try his hand as a businessman.
In 1980, Armstrong became chairman of the board of Cardwell International, a heavy machinery manufacturer, and two years later he took the chairmanship of Computing Technologies for Aviation (CTA), a startup that went on to pioneer software for companies operating air fleets. As his tenure there came to an end - he left the company in 1992 - made his first media appearance in years. In 1991, he served as host of a short series on aviation firsts for A&E, "First Flights with Neil Armstrong;" the next year lent his voice to a cameo, playing himself, in an episode of Fox's sitcom "The Simpsons" (1989- ) - in which Aldrin would also guest-star in 1994 - and in 1993 agreed to be interviewed for the direct-to-video retrospective of the U.S. space program, "The Tribute: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo & Skylab" (1993). Behind the scenes, beginning in 1994, he opted to send form letters in reply to queries soliciting his autograph, saying he had found that too many were selling the mementos on the collector market. Armstrong also made a voiceover appearance on the ambitious Jodie Foster-starring sci-fi outing "Contact" (1997). He agreed to be interviewed for ABC's turn-of-century retrospective "ABC 2000: The Millennium" (1999) and appeared in an episode of the documentary miniseries "Caught on Film" (2002), focusing on the tense Gemini 8 mission. He performed as the voice of Wilbur Wright in the documentary "Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention," and contributed his insights both as astronaut and engineer to the series "How Art Made the World" (2005) and "The New 7 Wonders of the World" (2007).
Armstrong's distrust of the cult of celebrity was exacerbated in 2005 when he discovered that the man who had cut his hair for years had kept Armstrong's clippings and sold them to collectors over the years for a sum of around $3,000. Armstrong threatened legal action unless the barber donated his ill-gotten profits to a charity of Armstrong's choice. Armstrong nevertheless participated in interviews for a flight of forthcoming documentaries celebrating the 40th anniversary of the moon-landing, among them Discovery Channel's miniseries "When We Left the Earth" (2008), the straight-to-video "The Apollo Years" (2009), and the BBC series "NASA: Triumph and Tragedy" (2009). On July 19, 2009, he made a rare personal appearance in a 40th anniversary celebration at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but avoided other anniversary events. He also signed on to lend his voice to a unique animated film project based on the Cassini-Huygens space mission to Saturn, "Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey," joining an all-star cast of sci-fi luminaries. The 3-D CGI film, originally scheduled to be released as a TV special in 2004 but pushed back to 2010, weaves elemental astrophysics into a space adventure plot - its lead character is a young photon - intended to draw family audiences to large-format (IMAX) theaters. In the spring of 2010, Armstrong returned to the public eye when he took issue with the Obama administration's revision of the space program. In April, he and former Apollo astronauts James Lovell and Eugene Cernan issued an open letter that the administration's proposed NASA budget, notably its elimination of programs for a new generation of space vehicles, was selling short the America's leadership in space exploration. He expanded on that the following month in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, averring the program would lose ground if NASA outsourced its vehicular capabilities to private industry, as the Obama budget proposed, and advocated re-establishment of a return to the moon as a NASA priority. On Aug. 25, 2012, after undergoing cardiovascular surgery, this historical giant and true American hero, died from complications from the surgery at 82, setting off worldwide expressions of grief.
By Matthew Grimm
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