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Astronomy; Neil Armstrong - A Tribute to the First Man on the Moon

Updated on April 9, 2014
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The author's aim is to popularise the science of astronomy in a series of relaxed, easy to read, and easy to undestand articles



Neil Armstrong recently died. It is only right to post a short tribute - a tribute which will be expanded in due course - to a man who played a central role in one of the greatest moments of human history, and a man who very possibly will one day become the most famous in all of human history.

That may be seen as a contentious statement, but it is one which I will defend on this page. Whatever the truth of that, certainly President Obama's first comment will ring true with most:

'Neil was among the greatest of American heroes - not just of his time, but of all time'.


Neil Armstrong was born on 5th August 1930 in Wapakoneta in the state of Ohio. It was as a six year old that he first flew in an aeroplane, and it was to instill in him a love of flight which ultimately led to voyages beyond all that were imaginable at that time. After attending school at Wapakoneta, and college at Purdue University, Neil signed up to the U.S. Navy to further his flying interests, becoming a Navy pilot during the Korean War, during which he was shot down once in the course of completing 78 combat missions. After the war, he continued his college education for a bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering, and later a master's degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southern California. In 1955, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to research flight and aeroplane design. The burgeoning interest in space flight led to the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, and NACA - with Neil Armstrong - was amalgamated into this new agency. Armstrong's roles within NASA in those early days were to assist in the design and the test flying of prototype planes including the record breaking X-15 rocket plane.

Soon however, Armstrong was looking beyond the blue sky to the blackness of space. He was accepted into astronaut training in 1962. In 1966, he was appointed commander of Gemini 8 when with fellow astronaut David Scott, he became the first to successfully dock two vehicles in space, when Gemini united with an unmanned Agena spacecraft. His second mission would be Apollo 11.

Neil Armstrong on the Moon. One of the curious oversights of the Moon mission was that few photos of Armstrong exist - most are of Aldrin, because Armstrong was taking the photos
Neil Armstrong on the Moon. One of the curious oversights of the Moon mission was that few photos of Armstrong exist - most are of Aldrin, because Armstrong was taking the photos | Source


When the time came to select the men for the most significant mission in American space history, the crew that NASA chose were Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin and Michael Collins, and for the extraordinarily responsible position of Flight Commander, they picked Neil Armstrong. On 20th July 1969, the Eagle Lunar Module with Aldrin and Armstrong on board, touched down in the 'Sea of Tranquility' on the Moon - the first ever landing by the human species on another world. Almost a full Earth day was spent on the Moon's surface, and two and a half hours of this time was spent outside of the lander, walking and collecting rock samples, and commemorating the historic event.

The hazardous nature of the Apollo 11 mission was largely glossed over at the time in favour of the celebratory atmosphere which accompanied the landings, but there were huge risks both on landing and on the take off. On the approach to the Moon's surface, Armstrong saw that the landing site in the Sea of tranquility was more boulder strewn than previously appreciated. he had to take over control from the on board computer, and with altitude and velocity data supplied by Aldrin, he took the craft down with less than 20 seconds of fuel remaining. President Richard Nixon later congratulated the astronauts in a prepared speech. Less well known is that he also had a speech of eulogy prepared just in case Armstrong and Aldrin could not take off and were left stranded on the Moon, destined to die.


Armstrong retired from NASA soon after Apollo 11. He later became Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. From 1982 until 2001, he worked in various roles in industry, including time as chairman of a company making flight scheduling computer software. In later years he became somewhat shy of the media circus. He was not exactly reclusive but he did shun interviews and publicity stunts, perhaps overburdened by the enormous significance of what he had done so many years before and the impossibility of living up to the role model status as a 'living legend'.

Neil Armstrong died aged 82, on 25th August 2012 from complications following cardiovascular surgery.


Quotes by Neil Armstrong:

The first message after the Eagle lander touched down:

  • 'Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed'

The first words spoken after setting foot on another Heavenly body:

  • 'That's one small step for man - One giant leap for mankind'

Quotes in the aftermath of Neil Armstrong's death:

  • '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.' (Barack Obama)
  • As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind's first small step on a world beyond our own (Nasa chief Charles Bolden)
  • '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.' (Neil Armstrong's family)

On my hub page 'Astronomy; A Beginner's Guide to the Moon' I include a map of the Moon which shows clearly where Neil Armstrong walked. I say in the text under this map:

  • On this precise spot, mankind walked on another world for the first time in our history, when Neil Armstrong climbed down the steps of the lander on 21st July. As such, I suspect that this spot on the Moon will in future millenia - even more so than today - develop an almost sacred reverence for human beings. No matter where we might one day go, this will become perhaps the most famous spot on any heavenly body.'

If you follow the request of Armstrong's family, then this is the spot on the Moon to look when you remember Neil Armstrong.

Footprint on the Moon - the first imprint of mankind on another world
Footprint on the Moon - the first imprint of mankind on another world | Source


To describe Neil Armstrong as 'the most famous man in human history' is a bold statement, and today of course it is untrue. Barack Obama, Usain Bolt - even Justin Bieber - may well be better known as of today. But I am looking to the future.

How long will celebrities and icons remain famous for. We cannot say for certain with pop stars, film stars or sports stars, but certainly many of the biggest names in these fields from the 60s and 70s are already forgotten to the majority, and almost unknown to the younger generation. A very few select individuals may remain significant for centuries - perhaps truly skilled musicians such as Lennon and McCartney and Andrew Lloyd Webber will be known just as we still know the names of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach today. Perhaps a few other creative and intellectual geniuses will be remembered by all as we remember Da Vinci and Shakespeare and Newton and Galileo, and a handful of the ancients like Socrates and Aristotle. What about the most powerful people in the world today? Most presidents and prime ministers are almost forgotten by all except students of politics. A select few are still known centuries after their term of office. How many of the names of human beings will still be known to the general public after thousands of years of civilisation?

Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong | Source


Now let us consider Neil Armstrong.

What period of history are we talking about? I am not talking about the history of the present; I am talking about the history of the future. A long future. Plenty of animal species have survived on Earth virtually unchanged for millions of years. It's actually quite difficult for species to be wiped out by entirely natural events, and given that our species - the human species - now has increasing levels of control over our ability to cope with set backs such as lethal disease epidemics and natural climate change, there is no natural reason (beyond our control) why we should become extinct. If we learn to act responsibly with regard to human population growth and management of the Earth's resources, there really is no reason why we - like many other species - should not continue to exist on Earth for thousands, even millions of years to come.

And if this is the case, then it is my contention that we will do everything that it is physically possible for humans to do. We will establish colonies elsewhere in the Solar System. We will develop technologies which enable us to travel to the stars. Even if we exclude exotic sci-fi theories and accept limitations on the velocity of space travel to sub-light speeds, we will go. It is an inevitable characteristic of human nature. But wherever we go, and wherever we establish the human species in the future, we will remember the first to travel into space and the first to walk on another world for as long as our species maintains historical records. Yuri Gagarin was the first to travel into space, but Neil Armstrong was the first to set foot on another world, and that is a record which will never be broken.

It is a privilege for all alive at the time of the Moon landing to have lived through that period, and it is my contention is that even many many thousands of years into the future, the name of the first man to go there will be known to the world, when all others alive today have been forgotten.


This page has been written in one day as a tribute. In due course it will be updated and expanded with further research.


Here in Britain, the death of Neil Armstrong was the lead item on the television news. However, it wasn't too far into the bulletins before other subjects were covered, and certainly there have in the past been plenty of inconsequential celebrities whose deaths have received more coverage. In newspapers it was not even the main headline in all papers. Within 24 hours, the television news had moved on to other matters, and Armstrong was relegated to a spot some way behind domestic news and sport. Such are the values of our society.


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