It’s late, very late, one night in July 1969. A ten-year old boy was watching a flicking television, black and white and only 3 channels in those far-off days… His mother and father were out, so the boy had the television to himself . Apollo 11 was big, big news. Here man for the first time in human history was to land on the moon. That boy was enraptured, very interested to say the least, surrounded by newspaper cuttings following every move the astronauts made….
Neil Armstrong’s name will go down in exploration history along with that of Columbus, Magellan, Captain Cook and the rest.
Most people won’t be able to tell you the names of the Apollo astronauts that followed him, much like they can’t recount other explorers and adventurers and yet Neil Armstrong’s name will be remembered by all, dare I say for all time.
Neil was a second group astronaut selected by NASA in 1962. He had been flying the North American X-15 rocket plane and was well suited to his new role of astronaut. This second group would form a cadre of astronauts who would prove that man could do useful work in space. The First group, the Mercury Seven proved that man could live in space but what was needed was to expand this knowledge base and build up a set of skills so that NASA could go to the moon. Rendezvous followed by docking, long duration flights and EVA – Space walks – were all new and vital skills. The Second and third Group would spearhead this work with the Gemini missions. Neil Armstrong’s first space flight on Gemini 8 with Dave Scott nearly ended in disaster but not before they had accomplished the first docking between a manned spacecraft and target vehicle. To say he took this mission in his stride is probably a bit flippant.
His personal life was marked with tragedy, he lost a daughter at a very early age, and his family home burnt down. These events would test anyone. On Gemini 8 he and Dave Scott could have been remembered as the first crew to lose there lives. Gemini 8 had docked with its Agena target vehicle successfully but with in moments the two docked vehicles started tumbling. Neil elected to undock but the spinning became worse and he had to use some of the propellant that is used for manoeuvring during re-entry. This meant that mission rules stated the crew had to return to Earth early. They made a successful re-entry and splashed down in the Pacific.
His selection as mission commander for Apollo 11 is a long story that I wont recount here, but I‘ll say the choice of Neil Armstrong to command Apollo 11 and in turn to be come the First Man on the Moon was the best choice NASA management could have taken. He was a civilian (can’t have a military man as first on the moon…), highly experienced at flying fast fighter jets as well as the X-15 research aircraft as a test pilot. He had his Gemini 8 experience and had been back up Commander on Apollo 8, which meant that mission rotation gave him the job of Apollo 11. The spring and summer of 1969 saw four Apollo-Saturn missions leave Cape Canaveral, heady days indeed. Most Space enthusiasts of today may have fond memories of Space Shuttle mission’s routinely launching to orbit and servicing Hubble and visiting the ISS. Sorry, it never had the same magic as 1969; it was a one off never to be repeated. Each mission from Apollo 7 (in 1968) through to Apollo 10 in May 1969 built on the work of each succeeding mission culminating in putting all the pieces together resulting in that famous first landing. Neil was once quoted that all he did was to fly the last 60,000 feet! And that was it; in those days they flew spacecraft, computers were simple affairs and it took experienced pilots like Neil and Buzz Aldrin to fly these amazing machines.
Neil ‘stood’ in the left had position of the Lunar Module. There were no seats as you don’t need them and they are heavy. He looked out of a triangular window that gave him a view down, forward and left, while Buzz with a similar window, looked down, forward and right. Buzz was effectively an extension of mission control while Neil got on with the flying and kept his eye out of the window. They had a few problems, too long to go in to here but the landing radar played up. Their initial landing spot was strewn with boulders and so had to fly over them and look for a safe spot to touch down – with seconds of fuel to spare. They landed and the first job was? To get ready to take off! Second job? Well they should have had a sleep period but Neil elected to walk first. And why was he first? Well, simply put, the door at the front of the Lunar Module was hinged to the right, so Neil (and subsequent commanders) had to exit first to make room for Buzz to move in the cramped LM ascent stage. There’s a mountain of work detailing the mission and so I wont recount it here but suffice to say he and his crew came back to adulation of the massess.
Being a quiet individual he eventually left NASA to work in his favourite area of aerospace research and teaching at Cincinnati University. One thing he’ll not be remembered for is his involvement in fly-by wire control for aircraft. A team at Edwards AFB where working on a LTV Crusader that NASA wanted to convert to use fly–by wire and not rods and cables. Signals from the pilots control joy stick would input signals to black boxes that in turn would make actuators move in the wings to move flaps and elevons. The team were having difficulties and Neil said ‘try what we had on the Lunar Module…’. They did and it worked. Today, thousands of people are flying to their holidays or on business’ unaware that their aeroplane has fly-by wire, thanks to Mr Armstrong.
Neil, Mr Armstrong, thank you so much for what you did that night. You inspired me and countless others to take up this great hobby of astronomy and spaceflight. I think it’s fair to say that a huge number of astronomy societies sprang up after your mission; The York Astronomical Society was one of them and still to this day continues to follow your work and your contemporaries. We look at the moon and still gaze in wonder and amazement and ask ourselves when will we go back again? You said we will some day and I truly believe it. The Universe is that bit dimmer this evening for your passing but there’s a new bright star in the sky and we look up, wonder and are still dreaming.
But I have a question for you Mr Armstrong, I know your true interest lies with flying and aircraft, so, which was the better aircraft Chance Vought’s Crusader III or Mr Mac’s Phantom II?
Footnote. Neil Armstrong once visited York, he had been attending a motivational course at Harewood House and got on a train at York Railway Station. The Yorkshire Evening Press was there to record him ‘setting foot’ on a BR train!