What is the great honor that can be given to a human being? Titles come to mind: in the United States it may be President. In Europe, it may be Prime Minister, or even King or Queen. In the ancient world, it may have been Emperor, Pharoah, Sultan, or Prophet. But across all eras and cultures, there is one title that sets one above all else. It is earned by nothing short of a blessed deed done during a defining moment. And that, my friends, is the title of hero.
It is gained in battle and in politics, in science and in sports, in everyday life and sometimes even in death. It is a title bestowed upon many throughout history, some of whom despise the fame and expectations that it creates…but in reality, there are few who truly deserve the name. After all, there are deeds that are extraordinary – and there are deeds that are legendary. In this series, I try to separate those heroes that stand out from the rest.
What can be said about Neil Armstrong; although his face may be recognized by few, his name is know to all. A naval aviator, an experimental test, a NASA astronaut, and a bona fide American legend, Armstrong stands as perhaps the most untainted and the single most legendary American hero of the 20th century.
An Ohio native, Neil Alden Armstrong was a flight enthusiast his entire life. He took flying lessons for an early age, and at the age of 17 began studying aeronautical engineering at Purdue University in 1947. Owing his education to the Holloway Plan, he was called up by the Navy in 1949 and finished his flight training just in time to serve in the Korean War. After flying 78 combat missions, he switched into the Naval Reserves,where he spent several years as a test pilot. He eventually resigned his commission as a naval officer in 1960.
Meanwhile, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was on a trajectory to reach new frontiers as the never-ending race for political and military dominance threatened to leave planet Earth. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik – a small, crude satellite that was the first man-made object to reach orbit in space. Although the object itself was harmless, the prospect of the Soviet Union being able to one day launch larger, and presumably more deadly, objects into space brought fear into the hearts of the American people. And thus, the space race was born.The near-term target for either nation to be the first to put a man into orbit; a goal which the United States had little certainty that they could achieve. The Soviet space program was more advanced at the time, and the resolve of the Soviet people seemed limitless. Unfortunately, the Soviets would win the first leg of this race when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit in April 1961, less than a month before American astronaut Alan Shepherd became the second man to achieve the same feet. Convinced that winning the space race needed to be the ultimate national priority, President John F. Kennedy subsequently made his famous speech that galvanized the nation and set our sights towards the moon.
During this time, Armstrong’s exposure to the beginnings of the US space program led him further and further down the path that would lead to NASA. In September 1962, Neil was invited to join the astronaut corps as a member of the second group of American astronauts. He was quiet and measured, being neither the most famous nor the most noticed astronaut in the group. However, his knowledge, training, education, and experience would soon gain him critical attention by NASA administrators.
The Gemini Program was the second phase in American plan to reach the moon, in which two astronauts would test various spacecraft, procedures, and maneuvers in space that would be vital towards gaining the experience and technical knowledge needed to eventually send our astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit. It was on the eight Gemini mission that he got the opportunity he needed to show his worth as an astronaut.
Launched in March 1966, one of the main purposes of Gemini 8 was to rendezvous and dock with a spacecraft named Agena which had been launched into orbit prior to the start of the mission. Shortly after Neil Armstrong and David Scott completed docking with Agena, they noticed that the combined spacecraft began to roll. They quickly determined that something on the Gemini spacecraft was causing them to spin at a faster and faster rate, meaning that the astronauts would soon be in danger of losing consciousness. Armstrong, the mission commander, quickly undocked with Agena and skillfully slowed the rate of the Gemini capsule’s roll using a separate thruster system designed to make sure that the spacecraft was upright before it re-entered the atmosphere. Although the mission had to be aborted, his quick improvisation and skilled piloting likely saved the lives of both astronauts.
Fast forward to 1969: the Russians were all but out of the space race, but the late President Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon before the end of the decade was quickly coming in jeopardy. NASA administrators had already sent astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders to complete an orbit of the moon on Apollo 8 (the mission where, for the first time, the entire Earth was photographed from space and the famous “Earthrise” picture was taken), but a landing had yet to be accomplished. With the death of veteran astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee in the tragic fire during a test before the Apollo 1 mission, Neil Armstrong found himself atop NASA’s “short list” of possible commanders for the Apollo 11 mission – the first mission launched with the objective of landing on the moon.
Apollo 11 launched on July 16th, 1969 with Armstrong as mission commander along with astronauts Edward “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. Four days later, their spacecraft would reach the moon. While Michael Collins orbited the moon in the command module, Armstrong and Collins jumped into the lunar module and began the descent towards the moon. On July 20th, 1969 at 12:40 PM Eastern time, mankind landed on the moon. The rest, as they say, is history.
Upon returning to the Earth, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were heroes – and not just heroes, but the biggest heroes the world had ever know. This would not be an exaggeration because they truly belonged to the world at that point. After all, Armstrong’s famous words were not “one giant leap for America” but “one giant leap for mankind“. Names like Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Apollo will live forever, but because Neil Armstrong was the first, his name will truly be legendary as long as mankind survives.
Of course, how does one land on the moon and live out the rest of their life? It would be impossible to retreat to normalcy after being consumed with fame, and even harder to find a purpose after having the feeling that the climax of your life had just occurred in your late 30’s. Some lunar astronauts struggled with this; Neil Armstrong was not one of them. He never sought to capitalize from his fame, nor did he stay in the limelight one second longer than was required by his duty. After retiring from NASA in 1971, he served as a teacher, a businessman, and an advocate for space flight. However, his continuing battle with people who sought to use his likeness, autograph, and even his famous quote for commercial gain led him to be increasingly reclusive about his legendary deed. He retired to a quiet life away from the world; untainted, and forever in our minds as the first man to walk on the moon.
The moon landings were without doubt the greatest achievement in the history of man, one that meant so much to an entire generation of people. It inspired children to dream of a time when they, too, could reach for the stars; it inspired students and professionals to venture into the fields of math, science, and engineering, so that they, too, could help bring the future into the present; and most of all, it inspired our country and our world to strive for things that we never thought possible. Over 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program in order to put man on the moon – but it was one man, Neil Armstrong, whose immortal words will always make him first among the world’s heroes.
May he rest in peace.