Neil Armstrong has passed away. He’d not been well, having recently undergone heart surgery.
He was, of course, pretty much at the top of my list of boyhood heroes. And he was certainly the most reclusive of the Apollo veterans, famously avoiding the media spotlight. It’s been speculated that his quiet, taciturn personality was a big reason he landed on the short list of potential first moonwalkers.
In 1968, as they looked ahead to Apollo 8’s hail-mary flight around the Moon, NASA was also re-jiggering the entire program schedule. The landers were behind schedule and still needed to be test-flown in Earth orbit (Apollo 9). And there would have to be an all-up dress rehearsal in lunar orbit (Apollo 10), which did everything but land on the moon – even if they’d wanted to go for it, the LM Snoopy was too heavy.
All of this meant that if everything went well, Apollo 11 would be the first landing attempt. Deke Slayton’s methodology for selecting crews was notoriously secretive, but you’ve got to think NASA brass had more than a little influence over who was likely to be the first human being to step onto another world.
Being a civilian was important (he’d separated from the Navy years earlier), and his all-American Ohio farmboy roots probably didn’t hurt either. But I imagine his personality had a lot to do with it – they could be reasonably certain that Armstrong wouldn’t do anything to sully the mantle about to be placed upon him. He was quiet, circumspect, and most notably not a glory hound.
Not to mention the man had already demonstrated superior judgment and command ability. He’d already flown the X-15 hypersonic spaceplane as a NASA test pilot, and his first mission into orbit was as the commander of Gemini 8. This in itself spoke volumes about their confidence in him, as most of the Gemini missions were commanded by the “original 7” Mercury astronauts. Very few of the “new 9” selected for Gemini were given command slots on their first flight – I’m pretty sure that Frank Borman was the only other to fly his first mission from the left seat.
Gemini 8 was the first docking of two vehicles in orbit, and it very nearly ended in disaster. After docking with the Agena booster, a balky thruster sent the combined ships tumbling out of control in all three axes. That is, it was rolling, pitching, and spinning all at once.
This all started while they were out of comm range with Houston, which must have really raised the pucker factor in mission control when their guys emerged from blackout completely out of control.
Armstrong and his pilot, Dave Scott, detached from the Agena assuming the problem was with the booster. Turned out it wasn’t, and the loss of all that mass ahead of the nose only made the tumbling worse. In the end, they had to shut down the primary reaction-control jets and use the re-entry system to get it stabilized, which ended the flight early. One orbit later and they were splashing down in the South China Sea.
(Shameless Plug Alert: if this sounds familiar, it should. Gemini 8 was the inspiration for a similar event in Perigee.)
Considering this, it shouldn’t be surprising that a few years later on Apollo 11 he had the nerves-o-steel to fly the LM Eagle manually, after its computers overshot the programmed landing site and had them heading straight for a boulder field. Taking control, he hovered them on another kilometer or so and set down with about twenty seconds of propellant remaining.
So, back to the here and now. Being an Ohio transplant, I’ve had a couple of opportunities to visit the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in his hometown of Wapokoneta, where the Gemini 8 capsule now resides.
He still lived outside Cincinnati, and it was nice to think that I might have run into him one day. Hey, weirder things have happened.
It’s sad to see him gone.
PS: The title of this post is a quote from Armstrong, spoken after undocking the lunar lander Eagle from the command module Columbia for their descent to the surface: “The Eagle has wings.” The rest is history.