Biography of Neil Alden Armstrong


"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Neil Alden Armstrong (1930 -) came into this world on Aug 5, 1930 in a bedroom in his grandparents' farmhouse near Wapakoneta, Ohio, and he left it on June 16, 1969 in what is perhaps the greatest adventure in human history.

Almost from the beginning, Armstrong proved to be an exceptionally bright child, learning to read before school age. In the first grade, he read an amazing 90 books. Tests showed that he was reading at a fifth grade level, which help permit him to skip the second grade.

Armstrong's youth was typical as you could find for a boy growing up in the rural Midwest of the 1930s and 1940s. He was a Boy Scout, developed a deep love for music and spent many nights looking skyward through a neighbor's telescope often focusing on the meteor-pitted surface of the moon.

However, an experience at the age of six would change his life forever. One day, his father had a big surprise for his son --- his first airplane ride. Flying and Neil Armstrong: It was love at first sight. In his dreams in a bedroom filled with airplane models, the thought of flying became an all-consuming passion. When he was a little older, Armstrong would hang around the local airport doing odd jobs for the pilots and soaking in the stories of the veteran flyers, many of who had barnstormed the country during the "Roaring 20s."

And while most of his teen-age friends were looking forward to driving a car, Armstrong was intent on learning how to fly. And he made it: Getting his pilot license before he got his driver's license.

When it became time to go to college, the choice of a major was obvious. So, Armstrong enrolled at Indiana's Purdue University where he began the study of aeronautical engineering, which would someday allow him to design the airplanes he would fly.

However, when the Korean War broke out in 1950, Armstrong, 20, set aside his books and joined the United States Navy where he became a jet pilot --- the youngest in his squadron. Assigned to the aircraft carrier Essex, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions during his tour of duty.

It was during one of those missions that Armstrong was nearly killed. One of the wings of his jet was badly damaged during a bombing run. However, he managed, through a combination of skill and coolness, to keep the plane airborne long enough to get out of enemy territory before parachuting to safety.

Deciding to return to civilian life following the war, Armstrong went back to Purdue and got his degree in 1955. Now married with two sons and a daughter (The little girl died very young.), Armstrong now moved his family to California where he went to work for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics --- the forerunner of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration --- and was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base to work on developing high-speed rocket planes.

It was at Edwards that Armstrong joined the select group of highly skilled test pilots who were pushing the very boundaries of flight by going higher, faster and farther with such experimental aircraft as the X-15. In 1962 the 32-year-old Armstrong joined NASA's astronaut corps.

Armstrong's first mission was a mixture of triumph and near-disaster. In 1966, he piloted Gemini 8 to the first successful docking of two vehicles in space. Under Armstrong's skillful piloting, Gemini successfully docked with an unoccupied space vehicle that had been launched earlier. It was an important test proving that spacecrafts could meet and be refueled and resupplied --- a necessity for any future space stations.

But then the trouble began: Soon after undocking, the two-person Gemini capsule suddenly went out of control, tumbling wildly through space. Soon, both Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott were dizzy and disoriented. Somehow managing to maintain his calm, Armstrong radio mission control in Houston, Texas, saying, "We've got serious problems here . We're tumbling end over end!"

With only his natural skill as a pilot to save himself and Scott, an ever more disoriented Armstrong finally managed to bring the spacecraft under control. Impressed by his coolness and professionalism, NASA named Armstrong to be commander of the most historic space flight of them all: Apollo 11 --- the first mission to land men on the Moon. And as commander, Armstrong would gain the honor of becoming the first person on Earth to step onto the surface of another world.

But Apollo XI would be more than just a scientific accomplishment. It would mean that the United States had triumphed in its long Cold War space race with the then Soviet Union to the Moon.

At 9:12 p.m. on July 16, 1969, with more than a million people looking on from nearby beaches, fields and roads, Apollo XI blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. And by the light of its powerful jet-fueled engines, Apollo XI with its three astronauts, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, roared into history.

Once the Apollo XI began to orbit the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to descend to the surface in the lunar module --- or LM --- named Eagle to take them to the surface in an area called the Sea of Tranquility. Collins would remain behind to pilot the orbiting command capsule named Columbia.

But as with so many other things in his life, all did not go smoothly for Armstrong. Searching the surface of a level-landing site, Armstrong saw the landing module's limited fuel supply be used up at an alarming rate. With but a few precious minutes left, Armstrong finally found a suitable site and took over the pilot controls and landed the vehicle on the Moon. A moment later, he radioed the words an anxious Earth had been waiting to here: "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

And with those words, Neil Armstrong began a whole new chapter in human history. For the first time, mankind had not only gone into space but had landed on another world. But the supreme moment of triumph came several hours later when Armstrong, dressed in his space suit, climbed down the LM's ladder and set foot on the Moon's surface in what was truly a "giant leap for mankind" moment while the eyes of more than a billion people from Wapakoneta, Ohio, to every corner of the world were glued to their television sets.

Aldrin followed Armstrong to the surface. And with them, they carried and a small piece of the Kitty Hawk, the plane the Wright Brothers flew in their first powered flight in 1903, an American flag, which they set up on the Moon's powdery surface along with a plaque inscribed with the words: "We came in peace for all mankind."

Now, all the astronauts had to do was get home, but as with so many other things in Armstrong's life, there had to be a near disaster before the triumph near disaster. One of the two astronaut's spacesuit had broken off part of the switch controlling the rocket that would enable the LM to blast off from the Moon's surface. What to do? Mission Control in Houston had the answer: Take apart a ballpoint pen and use it to replace the broken switch. It worked.

The Eagle blasted off from Tranquility Base and rejoined the Columbia and made the trip back to Earth on June 24without further incident.

Back home, all three astronauts were joyously saluted as heroes.

But Apollo XI would be the last space flight for Armstrong. Feeling being the first man on the Moon was enough fame and adventure for one lifetime, Armstrong took an administrative position with NASA.

In 1971, Armstrong left the spotlight of the space agency to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati where he taught until 1979.

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan named Armstrong to the National Commission on Space and the next year was appointed vice chairman of the blue-ribbon panel that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

A quiet, introspective man, Armstrong has tried to avoid the limelight. But in or out of the spotlight, Armstrong will remain for all of time the first man to go where no man had ever gone before.

Recommended reading:

Neil Armstrong and Gene Farmer: "First on the Moon.' 1970.