Only 12 men have walked on the moon (four of whom remain) and merely 12 more have orbited above its surface (of whom eight remain). The Apollo program’s achievement of delivering humans onto another celestial body and bringing them home alive remains one of the crowning technological accomplishment of this or any other era in history. From July 1969 to December 1972, seven missions were launched to reach this objective, of which six succeeded and all returned safely.
The opening for the movie “First Man” from Universal Pictures, starring Ryan Gosling (“La La Land” and “Blade Runner 2049”) and Claire Foy (“The Crown,” first two seasons), provides a glimpse of a laconic test pilot and engineer who inconveniently became a celebrity. The trailer suggests drama relating to Armstrong’s family, particularly his first wife, Janet, whom he married in 1956.
The title echoes its eponymous biography by James R. Hansen. The first man to amble on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong, amply demonstrated piloting proficiency and attention to detail. His public comments were carefully measured, which frustrated the numerous journalists who dogged him seeking salacious gossip or emotional outbursts.
Some do not seem to appreciate the fact that that technical skills and loquacious exposition rarely combine in a person. Adding to the mix an engineer’s understanding of sophisticated hardware with hand-eye coordination to control unforgiving vehicles yields extraordinary ability possessed by few people—and many such men vied for the opportunity to fly in space. Armstrong was one of those few.
Where America Got Neil Armstrong
Born in Ohio in 1930, Armstrong grew up with model airplanes and learned to fly as a teen. He served as a naval aviator from 1950 to 1952, flying an F9F-2B Panther over Korea with the VF-51 squadron from the U.S.S. Essex.
Following his graduation from Purdue University in 1955 with a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering, he joined NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which tested various experimental aircraft for high-speed flight. Among the most exotic of such aircraft was the hypersonic X-15. This rocket-powered 56-foot-long, 17-ton, fully loaded plane reached the edge of space after being dropped from an NB-52 carrier. Armstrong flew the X-15 seven times from November 1960 to July 1962 and set a record for flight duration.
While NASA began launching a handful of astronauts into earth orbit with the single-seat Mercury program, the John F. Kennedy administration’s goal of a manned lunar landing required sophisticated orbital maneuvers for rendezvous and docking of separate spacecraft. These procedures were tested through the twin-seat Gemini program prior to the first manned Apollo missions.
Launched atop a Titan II second-generation intercontinental ballistic missile, the 4-ton, 18-foot-long 10-foot wide Gemini spacecraft carried several modules for radar, reentry thrusters, a cabin, de-orbit motors, and equipment for reaction control and fuel cells for electrical power. While Gemini VII embarked on a long-duration mission, Gemini VI-A briefly orbited alongside, photographing its counterpart spacecraft.
Armstrong was included on the Gemini program when NASA announced additional members of the astronaut corps in September 1962. After intense training, Armstrong commanded Gemini VIII in March 1966 together with pilot David Scott, the subsequent commander of Apollo 15.
Prior to their mission, NASA launched an Agena upper stage for rendezvous and docking, with a scheduled spacewalk (floating outside the cabin connected by an umbilical) by Scott.
The Gemini VIII crew succeeded in the first orbital docking with the Agena target after matching orbits.
Unfortunately, their mission was cut short by the first abort emergency when a stuck thruster caused an uncontrollable spin. Without the crew’s quick reaction, both astronauts would likely have become the first fatal casualties in space.
The Gemini program served as a precursor for duration and maneuvering operations that demanded mastery of spacecraft control before embarking on a lunar landing—far from the proximity of earth orbit—so distant that photons require a full second to travel from earth to the moon.
To achieve a survivable landing on the lunar surface, astronauts needed training with thrusters for vertical flight. For this, NASA used the 2-ton Lunar Landing Research Vehicle. Armstrong flew this cantankerous platform to practice landing maneuvers. In May 1968, a malfunction required his emergency ejection, from which he parachuted to safety.
NASA’s Gemini program was limited to earth orbit. By contrast, the Apollo program, with greater thrust, could escape earth’s gravity well to orbit the moon. To this end, Apollo comprised a command module attached to a service module and a lunar module.
The command module housed the three astronauts during launch and atmospheric re-entry and would dock to the lunar module after leaving earth orbit towards the moon. The service module carried the main thruster and power supply. The combined command/service module (CSM) measured 36 feet long, 13 feet in diameter and weighed 32 tons.
The 23-foot tall 17-ton lunar module (LM) with two astronauts would separate from the command module with one remaining astronaut and descend to the moon for soft landing. The LM was divided into descent and ascent stages, equipped with separate rocket motors. A model by John Ortmann illustrates the spacecraft linked together.
In the aftermath of the lethal ground test tragedy that befell the Apollo 1 crew in January 1967, the new Saturn launchers and spacecraft components were tested in rapid succession. Two unmanned Apollo missions (4 and 6) in November 1967 and April 1968 tested the three-stage rockets of the massive Saturn V rocket as precursors to the subsequent manned missions. The smaller Saturn IB rocket also included an unmanned mission (5) in January 1968.
Launched atop a Saturn IB, Apollo 7 in October 1968 tested the command/service module (CSM) in earth orbit with the first American three-man crew. This exercise was succeeded shortly afterwards by Apollo 8 in December 1968. Its three astronauts propelled their CSM to lunar orbit and back.
Apollo 9 in March 1969 tested the lunar module (LM) in earth orbit. Apollo 10 in May 1969 became a dress rehearsal around moon to test the LM engines for descent and return to the CSM. The stage was set for the first manned landing.
Together with Michael Collins as command module pilot and Edwin Aldrin as lunar module pilot, NASA selected Armstrong to command Apollo 11. The crew named their CSM “Columbia” and the lunar module “Eagle” as tributes to the nation whose citizens had paid for this historic expedition.
The massive Saturn V launched Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral, Florida on July 16, 1969, propelling the crew towards the moon. After transferring to Eagle, Armstrong and Aldrin undocked from Columbia and began their descent to the Sea of Tranquility on July 20.
Computer warnings and a boulder-strewn terrain raised concerns about feasibility of touch down. Finally, to the relief of all listening, Armstrong announced “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”
Six hours later, the two men exited Eagle to become the first humans to walk on another globe, collecting soil samples, setting up measurement devices and planting the American flag. Aldrin and Armstrong boarded Eagle and fired the ascent stage motor, leaving behind the descent stage and various instruments, to rendezvous with Columbia and return home.
Following quarantine aboard the USS Hornet (due to ultimately unfounded concerns about lunar microbes), Armstrong completed his master of science in aerospace engineering from University of Southern California in 1970. He was appointed deputy assistant administrator for aeronautics, but retired from NASA in 1971. Accepting an professorial offer from University of Cincinnati, he taught aeronautics from 1972-1980. He served on boards of directors for several engineering companies over the years while residing in Ohio.
In the wake of the destruction of space shuttle orbiter “Challenger” during launch, President Reagan appointed a commission, chaired by William Rogers, in February 1986 to investigate the causes. Vice Chair Armstrong and the other members issued a report with recommendations to NASA for avoiding future such tragedies.
In 2009, Armstrong joined Aldrin and Collins for the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11. In May the next year, he joined with Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon during Apollo 17, to advocate a bolder manned space program. It might remind one of the narrator’s parting words in the movie “Apollo 13”: “I look up at the moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?” Judging by the New York governor’s cavil for our nation’s perennial lack of greatness, perhaps not for a long time.
Armstrong died in August 2012 of complications following coronary surgery. As fitting for a naval aviator, his body was buried at sea. The White House marked his passing as “among the greatest of American heroes” for that momentous attainment of the first manned lunar landing. Whether Armstrong’s legacy will more closely resemble those of Leif Erikson or Christopher Columbus, only time will tell. Hopefully “First Man” might inaugurate the latter.