Hero of the Week: Neil Armstrong
By Nick Palmisciano
There he sat, his head ringing with the massive vibrations of the engines roaring beneath him. If anything went wrong on ignition, he and his crew of two would be instantly vaporized as the liquid oxygen below them exploded into a ball of flame. Sweat poured down his brow. He was about to be fired into the air with the intent of not only exiting the Earth’s atmosphere and entering the unforgiving realm of space, but he, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, were about to do something no human had ever done before: Neil Armstrong was going to try to land on the moon. It was the most audacious thing anyone of the time had ever heard of, and to hear those who were alive to witness it discuss it, Commander Armstrong’s landing was possibly the most exciting moment of their lives.
A man had landed on the moon.
Nowadays, it’s easy to simply accept that such a thing is possible. We expect to someday land on Mars and over time I think it’s quite likely that science “fiction” will eventually become reality and we’ll have the ability to traverse the galaxy in a way that we can’t even fathom now.
But THEN, in that time, this was almost incomprehensible.
In 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, we didn’t have the polymers we have now that provide strength and durability with low weight. We didn’t have the computer systems we do now. In fact, the computer used on board the shuttle wasn’t even as powerful as a college student’s calculator, let alone your smartphone. These guys volunteered to ride a highly explosive rocket into space where a single mistake or malfunction would kill all of them using manual paper calculations to gauge their trajectory and hope that their estimates of the moon’s gravity was accurate enough to safely and successfully land with enough fuel to return home.
How many of us would have the guts to attempt that?
Almost all of us know the moment when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface and uttered those magic words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” What they don’t know however, is that the calculations were WRONG and they significantly overshot their landing site. With very limited fuel (about 90 seconds of burn) the landing had to be perfect. In practice, Armstrong had landed the shuttle in 15 seconds routinely. He needed 20 to take off and return to the Columbia docking station after landing. As the shuttle approached, Armstrong knew the site wouldn’t work and with NASA literally holding their collective breath, changed course and used an additional 42 seconds of burn. He knew exactly what this meant for them, but yet was unwavering and focused on the task at hand as NASA counted down the estimated fuel remaining. When he set it down, they told him he had 32 seconds left – a very close call that left little room for error on the return. We of course know that the mission succeeded and they returned home safely to be lionized for all time.
What people may not know, however, is that Neil Armstrong had prepared his whole life for this moment. Those nerves of steel and quick decision-making in adverse conditions were earned over a lifetime of service. Armstrong entered the Navy at the age of 18 and qualified as not only a pilot, but a carrier pilot. By the age of 20 he was a fully qualified Naval Aviator. By the age of 21 he had flown the first of 78 combat missions in Korea. For his military service alone he deserves to be our Hero of the Week, but this was just the start for Armstrong.
Upon leaving active duty for the reserves, Armstrong returned to college and became a test pilot, where he almost died on at least two occasions, in each case maintaining total calm and composure as he worked towards a solution and landed the aircraft.
His success as a test pilot led him to apply for the U.S. Space Program. Awesomely, his application actually arrived a day late, but a close friend slipped it into the pile so no one would know he had missed the deadline. The rest is history.
What is perhaps most interesting about Neil Armstrong is what he didn’t do. He had ample opportunity to cash in on his celebrity, yet for years refused all such offers tendered, in favor of a professorship where he could give back to the scientific community. Eventually he’d return to NASA in a leadership role. After years of being sought after by many companies, including MTV for endorsements, he finally and almost begrudgingly became the spokesman for Chrysler. His stated reason was that they were in financial difficulty and a lot of Americans depended on them for work.
There just isn’t much more that needs to be said about the man that served his country from the age of majority until his death two days ago. He literally showed us the best that mankind has to offer and for a moment in time, united not only the country, but the entire human race.