WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Remembering Neil Armstrong

Posted August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong stands next to the Ambassador of Exploration Award at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Unlike many of the other Apollo astronauts, Neil Armstrong was a very private person avoided the celebrity that came with the job. He didn't see himself as others saw him. Throughout his life, he downplayed his contribution to history instead crediting the 400,000 engineers and technicians made the Apollo program possible. Armstrong even stopped signing autographs nearly 20 years ago because it made him uncomfortable.

Armstrong wasn't a complete recluse, though. After a few years working for NASA, Armstrong taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati for another seven before moving in the business world where he served on numerous corporate boards. Following the Space Shuttle Challenger accident, Armstrong was called upon to serve as vice chairman of the presidential investigative commission along with fellow test pilot Chuck Yeager and the late astronaut Sally Ride.

Armstrong saw himself as a "white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer." The three hours spent walking on the surface of the moon weren't his favorite part of Apollo 11. The minutes spent in a harrowing descent and landing of the lunar module (LM) Eagle were. In his own rare public words: "Pilots take no special joy in walking. Pilots like flying."

That 9-mile descent took the LM from several thousand miles per hour to 0 in just 12 minutes. The descent rocket engine was the only means of controlling the craft and there was only enough fuel for one landing attempt.

Alarm tones began ringing as the onboard computer tasked with controlling the descent became overloaded. That computer was operated by a simple calculator-like keyboard. The computer or even the cellphone you are reading this on has significantly more memory and overall power than that guidance computer onboard the LM had. To make maters worse, the stricken computer had overshot the planned landing are and put them on course to land in a huge crater surrounded by massive boulders.

Armstrong called upon his experience as a test pilot and took manual control of the descent. Armstrong scanned the landscape looking for a place to safely bring down the LM, while Buzz Aldrin called out velocity and altitude. They successfully flew over that crater, over the huge rocks and brought the LM down gently with about only about 20 seconds worth of fuel remaining.

That wasn't Armstrong's first time dealing with emergencies. As commander of Gemini 8, an electrical short caused one of the spacecraft's 16 thrusters to stick open, creating a dangerous roll. During a 30-minute battle, Armstrong and crewmate David Scott used the re-entry thrusters to regain control and return safely to Earth.

Years before, as a test pilot on the X-15 rocket powered aircraft, flight problems put him going three times the speed of sound and nearly 50 miles beyond the planned landing spot at Edwards Air Force Base. He was able regain control over Pasadena and turn back toward the dry lake bed which served as a landing strip at the base. This was no simple task in the thin air of the upper atmosphere in a rocket powered plane with little control surfaces to maneuver with.

Stepping off the LM ladder and creating that boot print would be one of the easiest things he'd do as an astronaut.

Armstrong, of course, will be remembered as the first to step foot on the moon. He should also be remembered as a skilled pilot who  performed well under pressure. His family, in a statement released shortly after his death, ask that we "honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty."

They also added, "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."

Done, and done.

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  • RedfishOnFly Aug 27, 2012

    I had the absolute honor and privilage of meeting Neil Armstrong and having a conversation with him. He truly was the most sincere and humble man I have ever met. Until the day I die I will always remember the night that I saw him gazing up at the moon and I could not help but think "what is going through that man's mind?" It was the coolest moment I have experienced in my 26 years.