August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong: One Small Step Into The Unknown

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

UPDATED: August 26, 2012

Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died yesterday at the age of 82. America's favorite son has taken that one small step into the unknown.

Armstrong underwent heart surgery on August 8, 2012, just days after his 82nd birthday. His death came from complications with that procedure, according to his family.

"We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures,'' the family said in a statement. "Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend."

To the rest of the country, Armstrong was a hero. A shy man, never comfortable with his fame, Armstrong was an aerospace engineer, a test pilot, and astronaut. He flew Navy fighter jets during the Korean War, completing nearly 80 missions. After returning home, he was a test pilot at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High Speed Flight Station, where he flew over 900 flights in a variety of aircraft.  He joined the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1962.

Armstrong was the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission, in 1966, performing the first manned docking of two spacecraft. Armstrong saved the mission from near disaster by using a backup system to stop an uncontrolled capsule spin. The team made an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean. This flight made him the first U.S. civilian to fly in space. However, it was his second trip to outer space that truly set his place as an American hero.

Neil Armstrong was the commander of the Apollo 11 mission, where, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, he set forth to the moon, taking the American imagination along with him.

President John F. Kennedy, determined that the Soviets would not win the space race, or any other contest real or imagined at the time, declared that it was a matter of national importance that America put the first man on the moon.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” Kennedy said as he spoke before the United States Congress in 1961.

On July 16, 1969, at 9:32 EDT, Saturn V´s engines fired up and the countdown beat down to zero as the three astronauts took hold of their position in the history books that could never be replaced. Armstrong's quick thinking saved this mission as well, with incredible steering of the lunar module to avoid boulders, with only 20 seconds of fuel left, before landing in the Sea of Tranquility.

As he stepped off the lunar module onto the surface of the Moon, Armstrong's iconic phrase, "that's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" was heard across the nation by an estimated 500 million TV viewers. NASA's reputation was built, and Armstrong followed his hero, Charles Lindbergh into the American mythos.

Like his hero, Armstrong was very uncomfortable with his notoriety, choosing instead to live a quiet life of farming and teaching at the University of Cincinnati. His public appearances were rare and brief.

In an interview, James R. Hansen, author of “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong ,” cited another “special sensitivity” that made the first man on the moon a stranger on Earth.

“I think Neil knew that this glorious thing he helped achieve for the country back in the summer of 1969 – glorious for the entire planet, really – would inexorably be diminished by the blatant commercialism of the modern world,” Hansen said.

“And I think it´s a nobility of his character that he just would not take part in that.”

Armstrong was born in tiny Wapakoneta, Ohio, in 1930. He took his first flight as a six year old boy and was hooked immediately. This is where his lifelong passion for flight and space was born. He attended Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering, and after the Korean War earned his master's degree at the University of Southern California.

"Neil Armstrong was a pioneer of flight and that is how he would want to be remembered," says space historian John Logsdon , author of JFK and the Race to the Moon. "In his mind he flew all kinds of vehicles that set record firsts, and one of them happened to be the first one on the moon."

Armstrong saw himself as an aviator first and foremost, part of the long tradition of American pilots going back to the Wright Brothers, Logsdon says.

"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request,'' his family said in a Saturday statement."Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."