Neil Armstong Dead at 82: How He Came to Be the First Man on the Moon
Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on another world, died Saturday at the age of 82.
Armstrong was a test pilot, engineer and professor, but is best known for commanding Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon. Declaring it “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong left the Eagle lander and stepped onto the Lunar surface on July 21, 1969, at 02:56 UTC.
The moment was one of the high points of human history, and fulfilled the pledge of the late President John F. Kennedy, who had in 1961 pledged to land a mission on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930, to Stephen and Viola Armstrong. The family moved often due to Stephen’s job as an auditor for the State of Ohio; Neil Armstrong lived in 20 different towns by the time he was 15 years old. Armstrong began taking flight lessons in Wapokanetta, Ohio, and earned his pilot’s license by the age of 15.
Armstrong was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but instead attended Purdue University, where he studied Aerospace Engineering. Armstrong went to school for two years, then entered the U.S. Navy under a tuition repayment plan.
While in the Navy, Armstrong qualified as a Naval Aviator. He flew combat missions during the Korean War. Armstrong’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire in 1951, ultimately forcing him to eject after flying the crippled craft back to friendly territory.
Armstrong returned to Purdue after completing his service, where he met his first wife, Janet Shearon. After Armstrong graduated in 1955, the two married, then moved to California, where Armstrong served at Edwards Air Force Base.
The Armstrongs had three children: Eric, Karen, and Mark. In 1961, Karen developed a malignant tumor on her brain stem, ultimately leading to her death in 1962.
Test Pilot and Astronaut
Armstrong served as a test pilot during his time at Edwards Air Force Base, piloting chase planes, and later, experimental planes. Armstrong flew both the Bell X-1B and the North American X-15, reaching 207,000 feet on one mission — two-thirds of the way to space. Armstrong resigned his commission in 1960, but continued to work with the military as a test pilot and engineer.
Armstrong joined NASA in 1963 as part of the “New Nine.” Armstrong and Elliot See were the first two civilians to join the U.S. space program, and was the second civilian, after the Soviet Union’s Valentina Tereshkova, to fly in space, when he flew on Gemini 8. He would fly again during the Gemini program on Gemini 11.
Armstrong was a part of the Apollo program since its inception. He served as backup commander for Apollo 8, and was named commander for Apollo 11 in 1968. In March of 1969, it was decided that Armstrong, the mission commander, would be the astronaut who would be the first to walk on the Moon.
The landing of the Eagle lunar module was dangerous. During descent, Armstrong saw the craft moving toward an area that appeared unsafe. Armstrong took manual control of the LM, and moved the craft to a safe position.
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent about two and a half hours on the Moon, before returning to dock with the lunar orbiter, and then returning to Earth.
Armstrong never flew in space again. He served as Deputy Associate Administrator of DARPA for one year, before accepting a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati. Armstrong taught for eight years before resigning in 1979.
Armstrong helped investigate both the failure of the Apollo 13 mission and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He worked in business, serving as a member of the board of directors for several companies, and as Chairman of the Board for the EDO Corporation until 2002.
Though Armstrong was approached by both Democrats and Republicans, he declined to enter politics. Armstrong divorced his first wife, Janet, in 1994, and married Carol Knight.
Armstrong died of complications of coronary surgery. He is survived by his wife Carol and his sons, Eric and Mark.
Image Credit: NASA