Neil Armstrong: Astronaut and the First Man to Walk on the Moon

Updated on February 2, 2019

Introduction

An American aeronautical engineer, pilot, and astronaut, Neil Armstrong served as commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, during which he became the first human to set foot on the moon. Long after his unique feat, he is still one of the most famous Americans worldwide and a hero of aviation.

Before his historical achievement, Neil Armstrong was a naval aviator and an experimental research test pilot. He studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University under a free-tuition plan covered by the U.S. Navy. After his flight training, he served in the Korean War and returned to the United States to complete his studies. He later found a position as a civilian test pilot at NASA. As Command Pilot of the Gemini 8 mission, Armstrong became NASA’s first civilian to fly in space. After stepping onto the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, Neil Armstrong never returned to space. He remained, however, active in public life as a university professor, a spokesman for various American companies, and a member of several institutional boards and commissions.

This is his story.

Early Life

Born on August 5, 1930, on his grandparent’s farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio, Neil Alden Armstrong was the son of Stephen Koenig Armstrong, an auditor for the state government, and Viola Louise Engel. He had two younger siblings, June and Dean. During the first decade of Neil’s life, his family moved repeatedly due to his father’s job.

Neil Armstrong flew for the first time in an airplane around the age of five, and the experience remained deeply ingrained in his memory. In 1944, his father’s job took the family once again to Wapakoneta, and Neil began to take flying lessons at the local airfield, earning a student flying license right on the day he turned sixteen. That same August, he had his first solo flight. As a teenager, Armstrong was also a proud, active member of the Boy Scouts, rising to the top rank of Eagle Scout.

Education and Navy Service

In 1947, Neil Armstrong was accepted at Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering on a scholarship under the Holloway Plan, sponsored by the U.S. Navy. The program had an initial academic track, and between the first two years of study and the last two, the students received two years of flight training followed by a year of naval service. After serving in the Navy, they would return to complete their degree in aeronautical engineering.

In February 1949, Armstrong began his flight training at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, in Florida, where he was a midshipman. In September, he had his first solo flight. His training later continued at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas. In August 1950, he passed the qualification exams and became a naval aviator. At the beginning of 1951, Armstrong joined the VF-51 jet squadron as an officer and began flying jets. Shortly after, he received a promotion to ensign. Meanwhile, the United States got caught up in the Korean War and in June 1951, the VF-51 squadron received orders to join the war action.

Armstrong was nearly killed while flying a F9F Phantom during a sortie in North Korea. His flight group’s mission was to fly into a hot zone naval intelligence called “Green Six,” which was a valley with gun sites, fright yards and trains, a dam, and a bridge. While making a high-speed low altitude strafing run at the bridge, after releasing his 500-pound bomb and destroying the bridge, he started his assent into the blue sky above. Suddenly, the plane shook violently as his right wing had been severed nearly in half by a heavy metal cable that had been strung across the valley by the North Koreans—for just this purpose. His Panther was severely damaged, but he was able to gain control at twenty feet above the hard ground while flying at 350 knots. The crippled jet slowly gained altitude, and Armstrong headed for the safety of South Korea. A carrier landing was out of the question with an aircraft in such bad shape, leaving only the option to bail out over South Korea. Ejection from a crippled aircraft at jet speeds is a tricky proposition under the best of conditions, and serious injury was always a real possibility. The famed test pilot Chuck Yeager, the pilot who first broke the sound barrier, called ejecting from a speeding jet “committing suicide to avoid getting killed.” After a successful ejection he was able to parachute safely into friendly territory. This event solidified Armstrong’s trait of coolness under pressure, which would serve him well many times in the future. Armstrong would go on to fly 78 missions in the Korean War.

His active duty ended on August 23, 1952, and he was rewarded with several distinguished medals for his achievements. Upon his return to the United States, he remained an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve. In 1953, he was promoted to junior lieutenant, and for the following years, he kept on flying at various naval air stations.

According to the Holloway Plan, after his year in the Navy, Neil Armstrong resumed his studies at Purdue University. He worked hard to improve his academic record. In his spare time, he focused on extracurricular activities, such as writing musicals and playing the baritone in the university’s marching band. He was also elected chairman of the Purdue Aero Flying Club and had access to the club’s aircraft, which he took advantage of as his busy schedule allowed. In January 1955, Armstrong graduated from Purdue with an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering.

Neil Armstrong met his future wife, Janet Elizabeth Shearon, at a fraternity party. The couple married in 1956, in Wilmette, Illinois. They had two sons, Eric and Mark, and a daughter, Karen, who died of severe health issues at age two.

Career as Test Pilot

After graduating from Purdue, Armstrong took a job as a test pilot at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland but moved after a few months at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High-Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In 1958, when NACA was incorporated into the newly founded National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Armstrong became an employee of the new institution.

During his career as an experimental research pilot, Armstrong tested more than 200 models of aircraft and became known as one of the country’s elite pilots. In August 1957, he flew for the first time in a rocket-powered aircraft, the Bell X-1B. Eventually, Armstrong would get the opportunity to fly the fastest aircraft on the planet—the X-15—which was a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft that was launched from the under-carriage of a B-52 bomber. The X-15 still holds the record as the fastest aircraft ever built, capable of flying at over 4,000 mph or nearly seven times the speed of sound. NASA was interested in testing the X-15 to learn how an aircraft would operate at such high speeds and at extreme altitudes.

In April of 1962, Armstrong was once again caught-up in a test flight that would try his nerves of steel. After dropping his X-15 from the belly of a B-52, he ignited the powerful jet engine and began the climb at thousands of feet per second. Per the normal flight plan, once at the proper altitude Armstrong would shut down the engine and make a long glide back to the airstrip at Edwards Air Force Base. This time the engine burnt a little too long and Armstrong found himself weightless with the black firmament of space above and the blue planet below. He quickly realized he was outside the atmosphere and unable to control the aircraft. Losing aerodynamic control of an aircraft at hypersonic speeds could be a death sentence for a less experienced pilot. All Armstrong could do now was wait for the tug of gravity to drag him back into enough air to put the jet into the proper altitude for a safe decent.

He wasn’t home just yet. On his descent, at the 27-mile point, the jet went into “ballooning,” much like a flat rock skipping across a pond. His altitude was off just enough to shoot the aircraft back up to outside the atmosphere again. He used his reaction-control jets to roll over on his back and tried a few other tricks, but to no avail. Over his headset came a voice from NASA control, “Neil, we show you ballooning, not turning. Hard left turn, Neil! Hard left turn!” Neil quickly replied, “Of course I was trying to turn…but the aircraft was on a ballistic path. It was going to go where it was going to go.” Once again, gravity gave its unceasing pull and the X-15 began the long plunge to Earth.

Now he was at 100,000 feet flying at Mach 3 (about 2,300 mph) when he suddenly could see Pasadena in the distance. Neil, once again in control of the aircraft, rolled the X-15 into a bank and headed back to Edwards. Armstrong came in for a nearly perfect, textbook landing. He had just racked up the longest endurance mission in an X-15, all of 12 minutes and 28 seconds, and the longest flight of 350 miles.

By the time he moved to NASA’s space programs, he had a total of 2,400 flying hours as a pilot. He had also survived a few other major incidents. Besides his remarkable achievements as a pilot, Armstrong was an outstanding engineer and according to his colleagues, he had a technical intelligence that helped him manage many crises as a pilot.

In 1958, NASA launched the space program Project Mercury, but Armstrong was not eligible because the selection was exclusively for military pilots.

Pilot Neil Armstrong next to the X-15 after a research flight.
Pilot Neil Armstrong next to the X-15 after a research flight.

The Gemini Program

In April 1962, NASA announced a new selection for its manned space flight program Project Gemini, this time allowing civilian test pilots to apply. After attending a conference on space exploration at the Seattle World’s Fair in May 1962, Armstrong decided to send his application. On September 13, 1962, he was called by NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations, Deke Slayton, who invited him to join NASA Astronaut Corps. Armstrong happily agreed.

In February 1965, NASA assigned Neil Armstrong and Elliot See, another civilian test pilot and former naval aviator, as backup crew for astronauts Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad, who were the prime crew of the Gemini 5 mission. NASA had established a system of rotation regarding the assignments, which meant that Armstrong would be command pilot for Gemini 8, with astronaut David Scott as his prime crewmate.

Gemini 8 launched on March 16, 1966, making Neil Armstrong the first American civilian in space. The mission was meant to be the most complex of the entire Gemini program, lasting 75 hours. Although Armstrong and Scott achieved the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit, the mission was aborted early due to a critical in-space system malfunction that put the astronauts’ lives in danger. Armstrong and Scott received a NASA Exceptional Service Medal and a rise in salary that made Armstrong NASA’s highest-paid astronaut.

According to the rotation scheme, Armstrong’s final assignment in the Gemini Program was as the backup Command Pilot for Gemini 11. The launch was on September 12, 1966, and prime astronauts Conrad and Gordon accomplished the mission’s main goals.

Gemini 8 capsule following splashdown in the western Pacific ocean, approximately 800km east of Okinawa, the result of an emergency landing. Aboard the capsule are United States astronauts David Scott (left) and Neil Armstrong (right).
Gemini 8 capsule following splashdown in the western Pacific ocean, approximately 800km east of Okinawa, the result of an emergency landing. Aboard the capsule are United States astronauts David Scott (left) and Neil Armstrong (right).

The Apollo Program

During the 1960s, NASA developed its third human spaceflight program, Apollo, which followed Gemini and Mercury. Before the first Apollo mission got off the ground, tragedy struck when the three astronauts were killed in a ground fire during a test on board the capsule. This caused many delays in the program, but three months later, Deke Slayton called in Armstrong and other veteran astronauts for a meeting to discuss NASA’s plans for lunar missions. Armstrong had been assigned as backup crew for Apollo 9. However, after another series of delays, Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 swapped their prime and backup crews, and Armstrong eventually served as backup commander for Apollo 8. On December 23, 1968, Deke Slayton announced that, according to the usual rotation scheme, Armstrong would serve as the Command pilot of Apollo 11. On January 9, 1969, NASA revealed the names of the rest of the crew. The prime crew included, besides Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, while James Lovell, William Anders, and Fred Haise were assigned as backup.

NASA management had already decided that Neil Armstrong should be the first person to walk on the moon due to various considerations, including the fact that he was the commander, and the design of the cabin made it easier for the commander to exit first.

The Apollo 11 lunar landing mission crew, pictured from left to right, Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot.
The Apollo 11 lunar landing mission crew, pictured from left to right, Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot.

The First Moon Walk

On July 16, 1969, the massive Saturn V rocket launched the Apollo 11 capsule with three brave souls from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida while a million people watched on the ground and millions more watched on TV. Armstrong’s wife and two sons also anxiously watched the launch. The Lunar Module landed on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. Armstrong announced the success of the landing to Mission Control with the words, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." After Armstrong had confirmed touchdown, NASA control re-acknowledged and expressed the flight controller’s anxiety: “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” A few minutes later, Armstrong exited the opened hatch and stepped down the ladder. At 02.56 UTC July 21, 1969, as he set his left boot on the lunar surface, he uttered the immortal words, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” a phrase which would make history. Armstrong’s achievement was broadcast live via American and international TV stations.

Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface a few minutes later and became the second human to set foot on the moon. They immediately focused on their mission objectives. Armstrong unveiled a plaque to commemorate their flight and planted the flag of the United States. Shortly after, President Richard Nixon contacted them by telephone from the Oval Office. During their conversation, the president deemed the call as “the most historic telephone call ever made,” and he congratulated the astronauts on their incredible feat. Armstrong and Aldrin spent two and a half hours on extravehicular activities during the mission.

After ascending from the lunar surface, the Lunar Module docked with the command module, and Armstrong and Aldrin were reunited with Collins. They safely returned to Earth, where the recovery ship USS Hornet was ready to pick them up. They spent the following 18 days in quarantine to be tested for any infections and diseases. To celebrate their unprecedented achievement, the three astronauts embarked on a 45-day tour across the United States and around the world. Armstrong and his fellow crew members were now international celebrities.

A photograph of Neil Armstrong taken by Aldrin.
A photograph of Neil Armstrong taken by Aldrin.

Life After Apollo

Shortly after the completion of the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong announced that his space adventures ended with Apollo 11. He accepted an administrative position for the Office of Advanced Research and Technology at the Advanced Research Projects Agency. He left the position in 1971, and that same year he resigned from NASA as well. In 1972, he accepted an offer to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He also completed a Master’s degree, with a thesis on aspects of the Apollo 11 mission. As a university professor, Neil Armstrong took a heavy workload and taught several core courses. Even though he enjoyed teaching and his work at the university was highly appreciated, he resigned after eight years due to various bureaucratic annoyances.

After his retirement from NASA in 1971, Armstrong accepted roles as a spokesman for American companies, such as Chrysler, General Time Corporation, and the Bankers Association of America. He also served on the board of directors of several companies from the field of technology and engineering, including Gates Learjet, Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company, Taft Broadcasting, Thiokol, and Cardwell. He served on aerospace boards as well, first for United Airlines and later for Eaton Corporation. In 1985, Neil Armstrong participated in a North Pole expedition, organized by professional expedition leader Mike Dunn for people he considered the world’s “greatest explorers.” Besides Armstrong, the group included Edmund Hillary, Peter Hillary, Steve Fossett, and Patrick Morrow. In 1986, after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, President Ronald Reagan appointed Armstrong as vice chairman of the Rogers Commission to investigate the disaster. Armstrong had a key role in determining the cause of the accident due to his extensive interviews with various specialists.

In his last years of life, Neil Armstrong became very protective of his privacy. He declined many public appearances and refused requests for interviews. Although he kept a low profile, he remained active on the public scene by appearing in advertisements, giving speeches, and keeping his position as a member of various boards. He declined, however, all offers to join political groups. According to family, friends, and colleagues, he was a humble person and had no interest in gaining influence or power.

In early August 2012, Neil Armstrong developed complications from a bypass surgery. He died on August 25, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was 82 years old. The White House released a statement after his death, describing Armstrong as one of the greatest American heroes of all time.

References

March 16, 1966: Gemini's First Docking of Two Spacecraft in Earth Orbit. NASA. Accessed October 10, 2018.

Neil Armstrong, a hero who shunned fame. August 27, 2011. CNN. Accessed October 13, 2018.

Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, dead at 82. August 26, 2012. The National. Accessed October 13, 2018.

Neil Armstrong, First Man on Moon, Dies at 82. August 25, 2012. The New York Times. Accessed October 13, 2018.

One Small Misstep: Neil Armstrong's First Words on the Moon. October 2006. Snopes.com. Accessed October 12, 2018.

Project Apollo: Astronaut Biographies. NASA. Accessed October 10, 2018.

Summary Data on Apollo Missions. NASA. Accessed October 12, 2018.

The Moon Walkers: Twelve Men Who Have Visited Another World. July 10, 2009. The Guardian. Accessed October 12, 2018.

The First Lunar Landing, time 1:02:45. September 15, 2017. Apollo 11 Surface Journal. NASA. Accessed October 10, 2018.

When Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hillary Took a Trip to the North Pole. August 27, 2013. Atlas Obscura. Accessed October 12, 2018.

Barbree, Jay. Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight. Thomas Dunne Books. 2014.

Kranz, Gene. Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2000.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        4 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I remembered watching that on television and I was amazed. It was a landmark achievement for mankind. He started early and racked up hours but he has courage as well.

      • Larry Slawson profile image

        Larry Slawson 

        4 months ago from North Carolina

        Really interesting article. Learned a lot. Thanks for sharing!

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        4 months ago from U.S.A.

        Hi, Doug,

        You said it right: Armstrong is definitely one of America's and the world's greatest heroes of all time. I loved the fact he was a Boy

        Scout, and that service to him was more important than becoming involved in political bickering.

        I remember around three years old, in the early 1970's, watching replays of those landings. It's funny how some things you can remember from a very early age.

        Armstrong was a brave and quiet man who wanted to get the job done.

        This true life story is not only told with great details, but it is a motivator for us all, Doug.

        Great work. Excellent read.

        Much respect and admiration,

        Sincerely,

        Tim

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