Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

Christopher McFadden

Apollo 11 blasted off on July the 16th 1969. The mission composed of three men who were about to make history. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were the final phase of the culmination of years of research and development by NASA. Only a matter of four days later, the crew would reach Moon's orbit and began preparations for something only Jules Verne could dream of.

Today is the 48th Anniversary of the day that mankind set foot on another celestial body for the first time. A feat that, to date, has not been bettered. As ground breaking as this event was, NASA is incredibly humble about it on their website. Whilst  Neil Armstrong wasn't the only man to potter around on the Moon's surface that day, he was officially the first.

In the following short biography, we will take a look at Neil Armstrong's life and times and celebrate the man who would forever be known as "the first human to set foot on the Moon". Quite an honor.

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Early Life

Neil Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio on the 5th of August 1930. He was the son of Stephen Koenig Armstrong and Viola Louise Engel. Neil was the eldest of three children with his sister June and brother Dean. Neil's father worked as an auditor for the Ohio State Government, a job that would require the family to move around the state repeatedly. His family moved around at least 20 towns during his father's career.

Neil Armstrong's love of flying was apparently sparked by his first trip to the Cleveland Air Races with his father. His father nurtured his son's passion for flying when he took him on his first airplane flight in a Ford Trimotor in July of 1936.

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

The Ford 5-AT-B "Tin Goose" first entered service in 1928 [Image Source: Herb Neufeld/Wikimedia Commons]

The Armstrong family made their last move in 1944 when they returned to Wapakoneta. Here, Neil Armstrong attended the Blume High School and also took flying lessons at the local airfield. It was here on his 16th birthday that Neil Armstrong earned his student flight certificate. Incredibly, he successfully made his first solo flight before even getting his own driving license. That's pretty funny when you think about it.

Neil Armstrong had a rather busy childhood it seems. Whilst mastering handling aircraft and attending school, he was also highly active with his local scout troop. He eventually reached the rank of Eagle Scout, this is the highest achievement in rank in scouting if you weren't aware. In adulthood, Neil would be awarded by the Boys Scouts of America with the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award and Silver Buffalo Award. His fascination with flight would later lead Neil to begin his higher education studies at the age of 17 in 1947.

He never forgot his time with the scouts

On the 18th of July 1969 whilst en route towards the moon inside the command module, the Columbia, Armstrong greeted his fellow scouts. "I'd like to say hello to all my fellow Scouts and Scouters at Farragut State Park in Idaho having a National Jamboree there this week, and Apollo 11 would like to send them best wishes"

Houston replied to him "Thank you, Apollo 11. I'm sure that, if they didn't hear that, they'll get the word through the news. Certainly, appreciate that". Interestingly, amongst his personal belongings on the mission, of which there were very few allowed, Neil Armstrong, carried a World Scout Badge. Amazing to think this humble item traveled between Earth and the Moon and back. Not what you might expect an astronaut to carry with them under such spartan conditions.

Doing his part

Neil Armstrong began his studies in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University on a U.S. Navy scholarship. This decision made Neil the second person in his family to a attend college. He had actually also been accepted by MIT but was dissuaded from attending by an MIT alumni engineer acquaintance. Neil was informed that it was necessary to attend MIT to get a good education. Food for thought for us all.

As part of his scholarship under the Holloway Plan, Neil Armstrong trained as a pilot in the Navy for two years. The conditions of this scholarship were that he committed two years of study, followed by three years of flight training and service, finally completed with two final years of study to complete his bachelor's degree.

Interestingly, candidates had to commit not to marry until graduation. They also had to sign the "Aviation Guarantee" to serve on Active Duty for at least four years. Candidates would also not receive a promotion to Ensign until two years after they received their Midshipman's warrant.

Naval Service

Neil Armstrong was drafted into the Navy in January of 1949. He was required to travel and report to the Naval Air Station Pensacola for flight training. He was 18 years old. His training lasted 18 months during which he qualified for carrier landing aboard the USS Cabot and USS Wright. Not an easy task. A couple of years later Neil was a fully qualified Naval Aviator.

His first assignment was to Squadron 7 of the Fleet Aircraft Service at NAS San Diego. He was later transferred to Fighter Squadron 51, an all jet squadron. Here he flew his first flight in a jet, an F9F-2B Panther.

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

F9F-2B Panthers over Korea [Image Source: USDefenseImagery/Wikimedia Commons]

During his tour of duty between 1949 and 1952, Neil Armstrong flew 78 combat missions. His total flight time was around 121 hours in the air, most of which was clocked up 1952. For his service, he received the Air Medal for 20 combat missions, a Gold Star for the next 20 and the Korean Service Medal and Engagement Star.Neil Armstrong left the Navy at the ripe old age of 22 in 1952. He had made it to the rank of Lieutenant (Junior Grade). He would remain in the reserve for a further eight years until he resigned his commission in 1961.

His duties with NACA/NASA

He left the service in 1952 and returned to college to finish his studies. Several years later Neil Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). This is the institution that would later become NASA. His first assignment was with the NACA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland.

In his capacity as a research pilot at NASA's Flight Research Centre, Edwards, California, he was the project pilot on many pioneer high-speed aircraft. This included the famous  X-15 which was capable of a top speed of just over 6437 km/h. He also flew over 200 different models of aircraft including jets, rockets, helicopters, and gliders. Neil worked under a number of different capacities for this agency including duties as a test pilot and engineer.

Over the next 17 years, Neil Armstrong would serve as an engineer, test pilot, astronaut and administrator for NACA and its successor agency NASA. Neil Armstrong transferred to the astronaut program in 1962. Owing to his experience he was assigned as the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission, more on that later.

Out of this world

During his time at NACA, Neil Armstrong started to settle down. In January of 1956, he married his partner Janet Shearon. It didn't take long for their first son, Eric, to be born in 1957. This was quickly followed by their daughter Karen in 1959. Sadly, Karen passed away three years later from complications related to an inoperable brain tumor in 1962. Mark, the couple's third child was born the following year.

The very same year, the Armstrong family moved to Houston, Texas when Neil Armstrong joined the astronaut program. A decision that was to catapult him into the history books forever. He served as a command pilot on his first mission, Gemini VIII. During this mission, he and fellow astronaut David Scott set forth for Earth's orbit on March the 16th, 1966.

During their orbital mission, the two man crew successfully docked their capsule with the Gemini Agena target vehicle. This was to be the first time two vehicles had successfully docked in space. As impressive as it sounds, this was far from easy. During the maneuver, they experienced some issues and needed to cut the mission short. 11 hours later they landed in the Pacific Ocean, to later be rescued by the U.S.S. Mason.

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

Gemini VII capsule [Image Source: HrAtsuo/Wikimedia Commons]

The Moon Landing

1969 would turn out to be Neil Armstrong's greatest challenge. He, along with Michael Collins and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, took part in the mankind's first mission to the moon. These bold three, launched into space on July the 16th 1969 to create history for all humanity. Neil Armstrong served as the mission's commander and pilot of the Lunar module.

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

[Image Source: NASA History Office]

He and Buzz touched down on the Moon's surface 50 years ago today (if you are reading this in 2017 that is). Collins drew the short straw and monitored the mission from Moon's orbit, more on that later. At precisely 10:17 PM Eastern Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong uttered the now immortal line "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". Interestingly, the Eagle module had only around 30 seconds of fuel left in its tank.

He was joined shortly after by Buzz and the two men spent the next few hours collecting samples from the Moon's surface. The Moonside members also made some iconic photographs including the now famous "bootprint".

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

[Image Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons]

After pottering around on the Moon's surface, the three astronauts returned to Earth with a hero's welcome. Crowds lined the streets of New York to cheer the three men who made history. They were even honored with a ticker-tape parade. Neil Armstrong himself was the recipient of numerous awards for his contribution to human history. These included the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

[Image Source: NASA History Office]

Why was Neil the first to walk on the moon?

Most would probably assume that NASA has always intended for Neil Armstrong to be the first to step out of the lunar module. Especially, as he was the most senior rank of two men. Afterall, he was the commander, whilst Buzz was "simply" the lunar modules pilot. In a recent interview on Reddit AMA, Buzz actually admits to he, thought junior, actually vied for the spot to be the first man on the moon.

"In all previous missions, if someone, a crew member, was to spacewalk, it was always the junior person, not the space commander who would stay inside," Aldrin told fans. "I felt that there was an obligation on my part to put forth the reasons why a commander who had been burdened down with an enormous amount of responsibility and training for activities [should stay inside]."

His opinions were supported by other NASA members, as the more senior person should remain behind for safety reasons in case of an accident. They would be better placed to react to emergencies.

"But," Aldrin explained, "many people felt the great symbology of the commander from past expeditions or arrivals at a destination." And so it was to be Neil Armstrong, not Buzz who climbed down the ladder first. Aldrin did note that once both of them were outside the module their roles became somewhat more ambiguous even though Neil Armstrong was the superior rank.

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

Lunar module pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin [Image Source: NASA History Office]

NASA's official take

All well and good, but according to NASA's history website "Apollo Expeditions to the Moon," for there appears to be a contradiction to Buzz's recollection of events. NASA had indeed originally intended that Buzz should leave the module first. However, logistical challenges with the module itself made this impracticable.

The hatch opened on the opposite side to where Buzz was seated. "For Aldrin to get out first it would have been necessary for one bulky-suited, back-packed astronaut to climb over another," NASA says. "When that movement was tried, it damaged the LM mockup."

Deke Slayton, Neil and Buzz's boss, said that allowing Neil Armstrong to get out first was a basic protocol change. "I figured the commander ought to be the first guy out," Deke said. "I changed it as soon as I found they had the time line that showed Aldrin getting out first."  The first director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft, Bob Gilruth, approved the decision, Slayton is quoted as saying.

It seems any claims that Neil Armstrong pulled rank are simply hyperbole. "Did Armstrong pull rank, as was widely assumed? Absolutely not, said Slayton," NASA explains. According to the historical account, Aldrin later wrote: "It was fine with me if it was to be Neil."

Neil Armstrong: The First Man to Walk on the Moon

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Neil Armstrong didn't rest on his laurels

Neil Armstrong stayed with NASA until 1971 as the Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics at NASA's headquarters in Washington DC. His roles and responsibilities in this position saw him coordinating and managing NASA Research and Technology projects related to aeronautics.

After his time with NASA, Neil Armstrong joined the faculty of the University of Cincinnati as a Professor of Aerospace Engineering. He started his position in 1971, where he remained with the University for another eight years. Between 1982 and 1992, Neil stayed active in his field outside of the University too. He served as the chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc.

Neil also helped out during the tragic, yet now famous, space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. He served as the Vice Chairman of the Presidential Commission during the ensuing investigation. This tragic accident cost the lives of its entire crew including school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

How did Michael Collins feel about being left in orbit?

In Michael autobiography, Carrying the Fire, he expresses no hard feelings at all for needing to stay in orbit. Michael was keenly aware of the critical role played by remaining in Command Module. He was later honored for his part in contributing to the successful completion of the mission. Michael Collins even admits that he quite enjoyed the solitude and freedom experienced whilst flying solo in the command module. Collins reflects on how moving the experience of flying around the dark side of the moon and being the only human on that side of the universe.

He also took stock in the fact that his odds of survival were much greater than his colleagues' on the moon's surface. Collins also said that his only regret was that he was one of the only humans who were not able to watch the moonwalk live.

It should be noted, though often forgotten, that Collins was actually the second in command for the entire Apollo 11 mission. In fact, he performed most of the flying during the mission. Collins was chosen over Aldrin as it was felt he was better equipped for the role. Funnily enough, he could have walked on the moon on future missions. He would have been commander of Apollo 17. Collins declined, detailing that the intense training was deeply affecting his private life with his family and wife.

Other achievements

Throughout his life, Neil Armstrong appeared to like collecting degrees. He received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue University. He later went on to gain a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California. He was also awarded several honorary doctorates from a number of universities.

Neil Armstrong was also a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the Royal Aeronautical Society. He was also an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics as well as the International Astronautics Federation.

He also happened to be a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco. Neil Armstrong served as a member of the National Commission on Space between 1985 and 1986. He also served as the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the Peace Corps between 1971 and 1973.

Decorated at home and abroad

Neil Armstrong's contribution to human history and aeronautical engineering saw him recognized and awarded in over 17 countries. He was to receive many special honors from around the world. These included Presidential Medal of Freedom; the Congressional Gold Medal; the Congressional Space Medal of Honor; the Explorers Club Medal and the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy.

Neil was also decorated with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal; the Harmon International Aviation Trophy; the Royal Geographic Society's Gold Medal and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale's Gold Space Medal.

Wait we aren't finished yet, he also received the American Astronautical Society Flight Achievement Award; the Robert J. Collier Trophy; the AIAA Astronautics Award; the Octave Chanute Award; and the John J. Montgomery Award. Blimey

Death and legacy of the first man on the moon

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, passed away on the 25th of August 2012. He met his end owing to complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures. He was 82 years of age.

His experience throughout his life clearly made an impact on Neil Armstrong. He was, after all, the first man on the moon. An achievement that could never really be matched, only copied. Armstrong largely avoided the public eye. He did give a rare interview for the news program 60 Minutes in 2005. During the interview, he described the Moon to interviewer Ed Bradley by saying "It's a brilliant surface in that sunlight. The horizon seems quite close to you because the curvature is so much more pronounced than here on earth. It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it.

"It's a brilliant surface in that sunlight. The horizon seems quite close to you because the curvature is so much more pronounced than here on earth. It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it". Nice touch, That very same year, Neil authorized his autobiography "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong". This was written by James R. Hansen who conducted several interviews with Neil, his family, friends, and associates.

So there you go, the life and times of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Has his story inspired you? If you could start all over again would you have followed in his footsteps? Do you feel bad for Michael Collins? We welcome your comments as always.

Sources: BiographyNASA

SEE ALSO: Stephen Hawking: Life of a Modern Day Genius

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