Neil Armstrong, a reluctant American hero

Spaceman: A fellow astronaut called Armstrong a “quiet, perceptive, thoroughly decent man”.

What makes someone a hero? Centuries from now, Neil Armstrong will still be remembered as the first man to walk on the Moon. But he thought of himself simply as a “nerdy engineer”.

In a BBC documentary about the first moon landing — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week — archive news footage describes friends of the three Apollo 11 astronauts pondering: which of them would you most want to be stuck on a desert island with?

One said the mission’s pilot Michael Collins for “the quality of his personality”. Another said Buzz Aldrin, who would quickly find a way to turn the sea into drinking water. But both agreed that they would hope for commander Neil Armstrong because “somehow, he would get them home”.

Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon on 20 July 1969. One-fifth of the world’s population watched him do it on live TV, making him one of the most famous people in the world. And yet he did not see himself as a hero. In a rare public speech in 2000, he said, “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.”

That nerdy engineer was born on 5 August 1930, on a farm in Ohio. He earned his flight licence on his 16th birthday before even learning to drive. Later, he studied Aeronautical Engineering at university.

He served as a pilot for the navy in the Korean war, where he once ejected from his plane after its wing was torn off. Then he worked as a test pilot, a dangerous job that involved pushing at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere in experimental rocket planes. His cool-headed attitude led him to be selected as an astronaut for NASA in 1962.

That same attitude helped him to take control of a tumbling Gemini spacecraft in 1966, saving both his and his co-pilot’s life. Once again, he cheated death during a test of Apollo 11’s lunar landing module (LM). As it hurtled to the ground and burst into flames, he ejected with half a second to spare.

And he kept calm throughout the mission to the Moon, overriding the LM’s autopilot to avoid landing in a dangerous crater.

When he and his crew returned home safely, he was a celebrity. But he eschewed the fame, quitting NASA in 1971 to take up a teaching position at a university. He rarely gave interviews to the media. In 2005, he said his only regret was that his work pulled him away from his family while his children were growing up.

Giant leaps

What makes someone a hero? Armstrong played down his fame, saying he did not deserve it — he was just doing the job assigned to him. Instead, he heaped praise on the 400,000 NASA engineers, scientists and mathematicians who got him to the Moon and back.

But perhaps this humble attitude is what makes him a true hero. He did not seek out fame, nor did he boast about his achievements afterwards. Other men might have cracked under the weight of so much history. But remaining ordinary is exactly what made Armstrong so extraordinary.

You Decide

  1. When Armstrong died, President Barack Obama called him “among the greatest of American heroes”. Who is the greatest?
  2. What qualities make someone a hero (or heroine)? And does it matter if they do not want the label?

Activities

  1. Armstrong was famously reluctant to give news interviews. Imagine you have gone back in time, and have been given five minutes with him. What questions would you ask?
  2. Find out more about another astronaut, either from history or now. Write your own profile about their life, in the style of The Day.

Some People Say...

“I guess we all like to be recognised not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”

Neil Armstrong, on why he disliked fame

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Armstrong was the first civilian (i.e. non-military) astronaut to be chosen by NASA, and also its highest paid astronaut at the time. He was chosen in the same year that his two-year-old daughter Karen died of brain cancer, an event explored in the Ryan Gosling film, First Man, last year. His family described him as quiet, but warm once you got to know him. “Silence is a Neil Armstrong answer,” his wife Janet told Life magazine in 1969. “The word ‘no’ is an argument.” He died in 2012.
What do we not know?
When humans — including the first woman — will return to the Moon. President Trump has set NASA the goal of returning by 2024. While it says this is achievable, it is a tight deadline, and NASA does not have the same levels of funding that it did in the 1960s.

Word Watch

Documentary
8 Days: To the Moon and Back was broadcast on BBC Two on 10 July.
Apollo 11
The spaceflight which first landed people on the Moon. The Apollo programme began in 1961 and ended in 1972.
Michael Collins
A retired general of the US Air Force and NASA astronaut. He stayed in the command module orbiting the Moon, while his two colleagues landed on its surface.
Buzz Aldrin
A pilot in the Air Force and the first NASA astronaut with a doctoral degree in Astronautics. He was the second person to walk on the Moon, just 20 minutes after Armstrong.
Aeronautical Engineering
Engineering which is related to air and spacecraft.
Korean war
A war between North and South Korea which began in 1950 when the North invaded the South. The USA supported the South and helped to push the North back above the border. The war ended in 1953.
Gemini
NASA’s Gemini programme flew in low-Earth orbit. It was designed as a research programme to support Apollo.
Eschewed
To give up; have nothing to do with.