The man on the Moon

Profile: Neil Armstrong
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"OK," said Buzz Aldrin. "About ready to go down and get some moon rock?" Thirty years ago, Neil Armstrong was preparing for the most momentous step made by a human being in the 20th century. But first he had to get there, wiggling his way out of the lunar module (LM) that had brought him and Aldrin this far. "Forward and up; now you are clear. Little bit toward me," Aldrin directed. "Straight down. To your left a little bit. Plenty of room. OK, you're lined up nicely. Toward me a little bit, down. OK. Now you're clear. You're catching the first hinge," he warned. "The what hinge?" asked Armstrong.

"All right," said Aldrin. "Move...To your... Roll to the left. OK. Now you're clear. You're lined up on the platform. Put your left foot to the right a little bit. OK. That's good. Roll left. Good." Aldrin handed him a jettison bag: Armstrong would, among other tasks, take out the rubbish.

"OK. Houston, I'm on the porch," said Armstrong. They adjusted the equipment, checking the sound and television picture.

"I'm at the foot of the ladder," said Armstrong. "The [LM] footpads are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches. Although the surface appears to be very, very fine-grained, as you get close to it, it's almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine." There was a pause. "I'm going to step off the LM now." There was a pause of several seconds before he spoke again as he swung his left foot down, the right still on the footpad, one hand grasping the module. "That's one small step for man," he said, "one giant leap for mankind."

Armstrong had not meant to say this. Until a few hours beforehand he had not known what he would say, even though everyone had asked, including Aldrin and Mike Collins, whom they had left orbiting the Moon in the Apollo 11 capsule. Armstrong meant to say that it was a small step for a man. It was a typically modest claim, contrasting his insignificance with the magnitude of the human race, but it didn't come out right. It didn't really matter. Thirty years ago, on 20 July 1969, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon.

It had been a hard descent. Moments before they were due to touch down, Armstrong had realised that they were heading for a boulder field strewn with rocks the size of small cars; he had taken semi-manual control of the hurtling spacecraft, steering it low over the surface to a better site. With 20 seconds of fuel left, they had found it. Despite all the technology, the years of training and planning, in the end one man would pilot the craft to safety.

Neil Alden Armstrong had wanted to be a pilot from the moment when, aged six, he took his first flight with his father in a Ford Trimotor, a gawky lump of metal nicknamed the "Tin Goose" that was barnstorming through the region. Father and son sneaked away without telling mom that they were skipping Sunday school.

Even then, Armstrong showed a strong solitary streak, which persists to this day. "He was kind of a loner," says Bill Gutmann, now in his 80s. "He worked at Brading's drugstore. Whenever he made nine dollars he got on his bicycle and went to the airport for a flying lesson. He had a pilot's licence on his 16th birthday, before he had a driver's licence. From the time he was a kid he was making model airplanes. It's all the man thought of all his life".

Armstrong's hero was another proud and isolated pioneer - Charles Lindbergh, who also struggled with world-wide fame.

The loner went on to fly Navy fighters in the Korean war, and after college joined the organisation that would become Nasa, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration. He was a test pilot, one of an elite that pitted technology against nature, the heirs to Chuck Yeager and the "Right Stuff". Armstrong flew the X-15, a rocket plane that soared to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, and he was set to fly the Dyno-Soar, an ancestor of the Space Shuttle, but saw no future in it and moved to the space programme.

Some of the other pilots mistook Armstrong's shyness for hostility. One recalled: "His facial expression hardly ever changed. You'd ask him a question and he would just stare at you with those pale blue eyes of his, and you'd start to ask the question again, figuring he hadn't understood, and - click - out of his mouth would come forth a sequence of long, quiet, perfectly formed, precisely thought-out sentences, full of anisotropic functions and multiple-encounter trajectories. It was as if his hesitations were just data punch-in intervals for his computer."

It was his piloting skills that made him commander of the Apollo 11 mission. Three years earlier, he had flown on the Gemini 8 mission, an attempt at the first docking of two vehicles in space, which threatened to end in disaster: a thruster malfunctioned, spinning the vehicle until Armstrong was almost unconscious. He corrected the spin, and, though the mission failed, he and his co-pilot survived.

But it was not just seniority or skill that gave him that first step. Aldrin had lobbied for the right to be first on the Moon but had been turned down. He was military and Armstrong was a civilian, and Nasa did not want to give the appearance of militarising space any more than was necessary. Armstrong was the commander, and traditionally the commander is first off a ship when it docks (Nasa had a strong naval heritage). But, most importantly, Aldrin could not physically leave the LM while Armstrong was in place; there was no room.

So it was Aldrin who came to be giving the instructions as Armstrong fumbled his way through the narrow hatch that July day. If Grumman, who made the module, had fashioned a hatch that opened the other way, perhaps it would have been the Buzzer making a speech. He was religious - he chose to celebrate communion as the module sat there on the Moon - and perhaps he would have spoken of God. Some of his colleagues considered him to be rather arrogant, so perhaps he would have said "I" or "me". But instead, it was just a small step, by man.

There was a certain coldness between Armstrong and Aldrin, perhaps because of this, perhaps because of a training incident. Armstrong had seemed to freeze in a simulated landing, and the test programme came to an abrupt halt. Aldrin knew that, if the same thing happened as they closed in on the Moon, they would both be spread across the rocks, just more debris on a lifeless satellite of Earth.

It is easy to forget now how dangerous that journey was. Just two years before, a Soviet cosmonaut had suffered the first death in space flight, and three of Armstrong and Aldrin's colleagues had asphyxiated in Apollo 1.

We know that, two days before the landing, a young White House speechwriter called William Safire had written a short text entitled "In Event of Moon Disaster", a poignant document that lay unread in the records for 30 years. "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace," it reads, while evoking Rupert Brooke, the English poet who died on a Greek island in the Great War: "There is some corner of another world that is forever mankind." Had there been a tragedy, that piece of paper would have been handed to President Nixon, who had inherited the dreams of a dead predecessor in the White House.

"We choose to go to the Moon," John F Kennedy had said in a rousing performance at Rice University Stadium, Houston, in 1962. "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

But this was not mere dreaming; it was also hard politics, and it was war. The US was launching the largest defence build-up in peacetime and starting to pour advisers into Vietnam.

Russia had stunned America by putting Sputnik into orbit in 1957 and by launching the first unmanned moon shots. In April 1961 the Soviets had once more taken the initiative by putting Yuri Gagarin into orbit. "It is time to take longer strides - time for a great new American enterprise - time for this nation to take a clearly leading role," said Kennedy.

The course of Armstrong's career showed the steep parabola of American technological advance, powered by the Cold War. American technology proved triumphant in the race for the Moon, if not in Vietnam. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had on 3 August 1964 set the objective of a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. However, the Soviet programme suffered numerous technical problems, and, days before Apollo 11 lifted off, disaster struck as the Russians readied their equivalent of a Saturn V at the Baikonur cosmodrome for an unmanned mission around the Moon. The rocket fell back and exploded with the force of a small nuclear bomb, destroying the launch facility. It was to prove a terminal failure.

So it was an American flag that was placed on the Moon, though here American technology did briefly falter. The top section of the collapsible pole failed to go up properly, and neither Aldrin nor Armstrong could force it into the ground, so they left the flag lop-sided and folded. With it they left a placard that made grand claims for both America and Apollo. "Here Men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD," it read. "We came in peace for all mankind."

But, by then, Nasa was already running into deep budgetary trouble as the US economy sagged. There would be only a few more men on the Moon; just three years later, Apollo 17 was to be the last mission. Armstrong came home to work for Nasa, leaving to go first into academia and then into business. He returned in 1984 to the National Commission on Space, when the Cold War was once more raging fiercely and a new administration, that of Ronald Reagan, was again reaching for the stars. However, the commission reported in 1986, just months after the Challenger disaster when the race for space was fading and the nation was still in mourning.

Armstrong was always the quietest of the astronauts, intense and shy, and he remained so after his return. Unlike the others, he was never to seek public office, he rarely spoke of his adventures, he never gave interviews and he never appeared on television.

He lived for decades as a gentleman farmer on a 200-acre ranch in Lebanon, Ohio, not far from where he had lived as a child, serving as a director on the boards of a few hi-tech companies. Today, after a divorce from Janet, to whom he had been married for 35 years, he lives with his second wife, Carol, not far away in Mariemont, 10 miles outside Cincinnati. Janet cited "irreconcilable differences" with Armstrong in the divorce papers.

A friend who introduced Armstrong to Carol explains that "Neil was lonely, and Carol had just lost her husband in a terrible car crash. Neil's two grown-up sons are now living in California, and Carol has two grown daughters at university there, so they decided to take a road trip. When they returned they told me they'd got married. Quietly with no fuss, just the way Neil always does things".

Even his neighbours do not see much of him. In his locale these days he is most remarkable for piloting one of the larger types of motorised lawn-mower rather than spacecraft. He kept a low profile before the mission and he did so afterwards, though this does not mean that he, like the others, like all of us, was not deeply affected by what he saw and did and said that day.

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth," he said after the Moon mission. "I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."

Life Story

Born: Neil Alden Armstrong, 25 August 1930, on his grandparents' farm in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Family: Father, Stephen, was an auditor for the State of Ohio, mother, Viola, a housewife; sister, June, and brother, Dean; married Janet, his childhood sweetheart, in 1956 (two sons, Eric and Mark); divorced and remarried Carol.

Education: Blume High School, Wapakoneta; Purdue University, Indiana, BSc in aeronautical engineering; MSc from the University of Southern California.

Career: Navy pilot 1949-52, flew 78 combat missions during the Korean war.

Space career: Joined Nasa in 1955; accepted as an astronaut in 1962; flew first mission in 1966, commanding Gemini 8 and performing first successful space docking operation; commander of Apollo 11 and first man on the moon, 1969; resigned from Nasa, 1971.

Since the Moon: Professor of aerospace engineering, University of Cincinnati, 1971-79; chairman of AIL Systems since 1989.

He said: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind..." "Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

He says now: "I don't want to be a living memorial. Those days are long gone."

They say: "He's a recluse's recluse" (former Nasa official who worked with him); "Neil thanks everyone for their interest but has never given interviews and is not about to start" (second wife).