On August 25 this year, the world bid goodbye to a true hero. Neil Alden Armstrong created history with his one small step on the moon.
Neil Alden Armstrong, astronaut and the first man to walk on the moon, may have physically left the world, at 82, on August 25, but the rich tributes that have been pouring in only show us that he was a real hero.
His legendary statement “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (though Armstrong said it’s “for a man”) ensured his place in history when as the commander of the U.S.’s Apollo 11 spacecraft, and accompanied by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, pilot of the Columbia command module, he created history by planting the first step on the lunar surface.
Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, in 1930, he acquired his student pilot’s licence by 16. In 1947, he went to Purdue University on a navy scholarship to study aeronautical engineering. The Korean War, two years later, saw him fly 78 combat missions. It was then back to academics, where he did an MSc in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California.
In 1955 he became a research pilot in what was to become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He is on record as having flown and tested jets, rockets, helicopters and gliders.
His window of opportunity came in 1962, when he was chosen among nine test pilots for the space programme. It was the vision of President John F. Kennedy to see America make a manned moon landing that pushed Armstrong to fame.
All time hero
NASA knew that the first man on the moon would become almost immortal and ensured that Armstrong, considered to be serious-minded, got the honour. In 1969, on what would be his second and last spaceflight, Armstrong and the team were on board Apollo 11.
Apollo 11 took off on July 16, and four days later the craft descended near an edge of the Sea of Tranquillity. Around six-and-a-half hours later, Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module, the first human being to set foot on the moon. After 20 minutes Aldrin was off the craft and they both addressed the watching world: “Here men from the planet earth first set foot on the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
It is interesting to note that there are not many clear pictures of Armstrong on the lunar surface. Most of the pictures are of Aldrin and photographed by Armstrong.
The American flag was raised and there was a talk with President Richard Nixon. The scheduled experiments were completed, and moon soil and rocks gathered. They eventually rejoined Collins. The module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. The men were celebrities.
Life from then on was never the same, with many worldwide tours. Armstrong was decorated by 17 countries and the recipient of many special honours.
But to his family and the world, Armstrong was “a reluctant hero”.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said: “As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them.”
President Obama added: “Neil was among the greatest of American heroes — not just of his time, but of all time. The crew of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. When Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”
But the ultimate tribute must come from Elliot Pulham of the Space Foundation. He said, “In an age when Hollywood and professional sports manufacture so-called ‘heroes’, Armstrong exemplified the right stuff. He was the real deal.”
July 1969: A moment in history
A NASA video of 1969 captures the historic moment of the first moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s achievement. The grainy black and white footage is of broadcast quality and taken by a mounted camera. On July 20, 1969, we hear the voice of Armstrong: “I am at the foot of the ladder ... the surface appears to be very fine-grained. Almost like a powder, as you descend the ladder. I am stepping off the ladder now. It’s one small step for man... one giant leap for mankind.
(A pause) “It’s very pretty out here.” The commentator then says: “Every precious minute of their two and a half hours on the surface was programmed. Rock and soil samples, photographs, experiments ... to measure precisely by laser beam reflection the exact distance between earth and moon ....”
A museum for their boy
The United States and the world celebrated Armstrong’s achievement, but his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, U.S., wanted to do much more to honour his feat. The Apollo 11 crew had completed the greatest journey in history — by sending men to the moon — and their boy was a part of it.
On July 20, 1969, Ohio governor James Rhodes thought of a museum “as a monument to the achievements of not only Armstrong but all Ohioans who have attempted to defy gravity, as well as to the history of the space program itself.” The State of Ohio pledged an amount of $500,000 for the project. Rhodes fired up the community telling it that Neil Armstrong was the man of the century. Residents contributed enthusiastically in response to Rhodes’ challenge to match dollar for dollar the funds pledged. Even school children saved money to take part in this project. Plans for the museum were revealed in 1970. It had a unique design. Earth was placed around the steel-reinforced concrete building, to give it the appearance of being underground.
On July 20, 1972, the Armstrong Air & Space Museum was inaugurated in the presence of Armstrong. Patricia “Tricia” Nixon, the elder daughter of President Richard Nixon, presented moon rocks brought back to Earth from the Apollo 11 mission. The aim of the museum was not merely to look at Ohio’s contribution to aviation and space exploration, but also to be a tribute to Armstrong. Among its exhibits are the Gemini VIII spacecraft, Armstrong’s Gemini and Apollo spacesuits, an Apollo 11 moon rock and a replica of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik. Apart from these are two full-size aircraft, both of which were flown by Armstrong. Visitors can practice landing the lunar module and space shuttle, or even docking the Gemini capsule, as Armstrong did in 1966. An astro theatre lets visitors enjoy the night sky or watch a documentary about Apollo 11’s lunar landing. A Young Astronaut Programme, for children from kindergarten to class seven, introduces them to subjects like rocketry, astronomy, the study of astrobiology, engineering and design.
Look at the moon
In a statement after his passing, his family issued a simple request for those wishing to pay tribute: “Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong, and give him a wink.”