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Neil Armstrong: The Last Great American Hero
There aren’t too many people on this planet who can claim to have flown combat missions over Korea, been a test pilot on some of the most dangerous experimental aircraft ever developed, and then went on to become an astronaut. Neil Armstrong accomplished much during his 82 years here on earth. But he will be forever remembered for one simple step that took place not here on earth, but on the surface of the moon. Yet to him, it was all in a day’s work, it was his job, nothing more, and nothing less.
If you grew up during the 1960s and became captivated with the space race, then August 25, 2012, was a very sad day for you. It should be a mournful day for all Americans, as a true pioneer and American hero has passed on. There weren't too many men with the stuff that Neil Armstrong possessed. He was an American original, a trail blazer, and an individual with all of the qualities necessary to achieve something that no other human had ever done.
Anyone who was fortunate enough to have watched that grainy TV coverage of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon surely must have taken a moment upon hearing of Armstrong’s passing to reflect back to that day in 1969.
Centuries from now historians will certainly look back at the Apollo 11 Mission as the defining moment of the 20th century. Think about what Armstrong accomplished that July of 1969. They strapped three astronauts on top of a 360-foot rocket containing 4.5 millions pounds of fuel, lit the fuse, and flew off into space toward the moon. And this was the easy part.
After orbiting the moon, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin then descended in the Lunar Module to the surface of the moon where Armstrong made what was essentially a manual landing on the surface. While millions around the world watched this unfold in awe, there were those in NASA who knew that the job was only half complete. After frolicking around on the surface of the moon for 2.5 hours, they had to make the return trip back to earth. It takes a special breed of person to sign himself up for a mission such as this. Neil Armstrong was just that person.
Neil Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio. From an early age he had a fascination with flight and actually received his flight certificate before he received his driver’s license.
Upon graduating from Blume High School, Armstrong attended Purdue University where he studied Aerospace Engineering. He graduated from Purdue in 1955 but because his education was paid for under the Holloway Plan he was required to study for two years, then spend three years in the Navy, before returning for his final two years of studies. So in January of 1949, Armstrong reported to the Pensacola Naval Air Station where he started 18 months of flight training.
By August of 1951 Armstrong was flying missions in the Korean War. He went on to fly 78 missions over Korea. In 1952 Armstrong completed his three year stint in the Navy and returned to Purdue where he finished up his studies in 1955.
After graduating from Purdue, Armstrong began a career as an experimental test pilot and worked at Edwards Air Force Base in California. During his time here Armstrong flew some of the most advanced aircraft of the time including the X-15 in which he reached a speed of over mach 5.7 and achieved an altitude of over 207,000 feet.
In 1962 Armstrong applied for the second group of NASA astronauts and was selected as one of what was called “the New Nine”. Thus began his career as an astronaut.
In March of 1966 Armstrong was selected as the Command pilot of the Gemini 8 mission, which was his first space mission as a NASA astronaut. By late 1966 the Gemini program was winding down and the Apollo program was gearing up in an attempt to fulfill President JF Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth. The program got off to a harrowing start when the crew of Apollo 1 was killed in a tragic accident while conducting a test on the launch pad.
It was sometime in March of 1969 that NASA management made the decision that Neil Armstrong would be the first person to set foot on the moon. The decision was made, in large part due to Neil’s unassuming nature and lack of ego. Of course there was also the fact that he was technically competent and extremely capable. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the late hours of July 20th, 1969, Armstrong piloted the Lunar Module named Eagle onto the surface of the moon. A few hours later he forever etched his name into the history books when he stepped out of the Lunar Module and onto the surface of the moon and uttered those now infamous words, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. For the first time in the history of mankind, we were visiting a celestial body other than earth.
Walter Cronkite makes the call! I still get goosebumps watching this.
An estimated 600 million people around the world watched history unfold that July. And with that, Neil Armstrong was instantly thrust into the spotlight. Somewhat uncharacteristic of the test pilot, astronaut mentality, Neil wanted nothing to do with the fame and potential fortune of this historic moment. Instead, in 1971, less than two years after his remarkable journey, he retired from NASA and turned his attention instead to academia where he started teaching Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. As many of his colleagues would refer to him over the years, he was a true engineers’ engineer!
Did you watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969?
Over the course of his life, Neil was a very reluctant hero. His Midwestern roots kept him firmly planted on the ground and he always insisted that he was simply doing his job. Hounded for autographs all of his life, Armstrong stopped signing autographs for the general public in 1994 due to his concerns that his autographs were being used for profit. In 2003 he completely stopped signing anything, even at charity events, as his autographs were now being sold on eBay, which really irritated Armstrong.
Always the private person, Neil was always very uncomfortable with all of this attention. There was even a book published in 2011 titled "Neil Armstrong, The Quest for His Autograph". It has been written and discussed that a Neil Armstrong autograph was far and away the most sought after autograph ever, and had the highest value of anyone while they were alive with values reaching over $5,000 for a simple signature.
2012 will go down as a year of immense loss for NASA, America, and any space and aviation enthusiast. The community lost Sally Ride earlier in the year and now Neil Armstrong. They were two individuals who blazed new trails for mankind and taught us all a few things about courage, commitment and service to one's country.
This stunning image of the earth was photographed from Apollo 11 on the third day of their journey to the moon.
© 2012 Bill De Giulio