2:56 pm UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), July 21, 1969. The time when astronaut Neil Armstrong set his left foot on moon, etching the moment forever in history books. The event was listened to by 450 million listeners out of a then estimated world population of 3.631 billion. Ask any child or adult anywhere in the world about who the first man was to step on the moon, and they will immediately say Neil Armstrong!
“That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” he had said. But who really was the man himself? So focussed was the world on the ‘one giant leap for mankind’ part that the first half was largely ignored.
In his early days
Neil Alden Armstrong. Born August 5, 1930 in Ohio to Stephen Koenig Armstrong and Viola Louise Engel. A man of Scottish, Irish and German ancestry. Growing up, he took and early liking to flying, getting a flight certificate on his 16th birthday, even before he got his driving licence. He went on to study aeronautical engineering from Purdue University the next year and in 1949 got called by the US Navy, later becoming a fully qualified Naval Aviator. This experience proved pivotal for his later years at Nasa.
Armstrong piloting S-116, on the left
Armstrong’s first mission was in Korean war. During a mission, his F9F Panther was hit by anti-aircraft fire and later collided with a pole. He somehow managed to bring the plane back to friendly territory and escaped the crash by ejecting himself out. Among his 78 missions in Korea, he received Air Medal for 20 combat missions, a Gold Star for the next 20, and the Korean Service Medal and Engagement Star.
Armstrong with his family
After returning from the service, he graduated in 1955 and it was at Purdue that he met his first wife Janet Elizabeth Shearon. They had three children Eric, Karen and Mark. Karen developed brain tumour and died when she was two due to pneumonia. This pushed Armstrong to divert all his attention to his work in order to cope with the loss. His wife Janet had to do the difficult job to manage their sons almost singlehandedly. Admittedly, this was the case with all the wives of astronauts who raised their children almost all by themselves in constant absence of their husbands.
Gemini 8 team
Firse Space Mission
Armstrong did his masters from the University of Southern California and later became a research test pilot. He survived a number of close calls including a time when his place almost crashed during landing. He was selected for the US Air Force’s ‘Man In Space Soonest’ programme and aboard the Gemini 8 spacecraft, entered space on March 16, 1966, though the mission had to be cut short due to some problems. In Gemini 11, he completed the mission successfully along with his co-pilots.
Cold space war
USA and the Soviet Union were locked in a cold space war and that was the main reason Nixon wanted a manned lunar mission as soon as possible. This led to the birth of Apollo 11 programme with Neil Armstrong as the commander and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins.
Buzz Adrian gazing at the flag
The Apollo mission left for moon on July 16 and landed on July 20. After the successful lunar mission, all three of them, particularly Armstrong, became celebrities back on Earth. Armstrong did not anticipate this.
Post Apollo 11
For him, the mission was important not the symbolism. He shied away from all the spotlight where as his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin basked in it. Armstrong, according to himself, he basked in obscurity. The fame and the name repelled Armstrong. After his mission, he quit Nasa within a year and later took on teaching at University of Cincinnati, ignoring calls for interviews and meets. It remains a sad fact that one of the greatest achievements of mankind was a byproduct of the cold war between USA and the Soviet Union.
For Neil Armstrong, the reason was the most important. Later in his life, he was told about the plan to send a manned aircraft to Mars. He was not impressed by all the talk and enquired about the actual application of the mission. In the aftermath of cold war, NASA could not retain its trajectory and slowed down significantly. This acts as a harsh reminder that to this day, space exploration, knowing something beyond our own world, is of secondary importance to other things like competition between countries. Armstrong got to know this all too well and cut himself off from the world, even flying, his first love.
The reluctant hero
Everybody knows who the first man on moon was. But what we should also know is what he stood for. The quiet, handsome and the ‘reluctant hero’ of America chose not to stay on the path which he realised was there in the first place because of someone else’s (read: Nixon’s) ambitions. He could have joined politics, start a company, write books, appear in movies, but he chose to retain his identity.
Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012 due to complications from a heart surgery. He is survived by his children and second wife Carol Held Knight, who he married in 1994 after divorce with his first wife. His cremated remains were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean during a burial-at-sea ceremony aboard the USS Philippine Sea.
Neil Armstrong lived his life on his own terms and principles and was more than just ‘the man who was the first to set foot on moon’. Let us remember him on his birth anniversary today for not his infamous first step but for what he was beyond that.
Title image: Wikipedia