Neil Armstrong

The First Man to Walk on the Moon

Neil Armstrong, official portrait. (Picture courtesy of NASA)

Who Was Neil Armstrong?

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. He was the commander of Apollo 11, the first mission to actually make a moon landing. President John F. Kennedy had promised on May 25, 1961 in A Special Address to Congress on the Importance of Space to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade." The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) was developed to accomplish this, and Neil Armstrong's footstep on the moon was considered America's "victory" in the race for space.


Dates: August 5, 1930 — August 25, 2012

Also Known As: Neil Alden Armstrong, Neil A. Armstrong

Famous Quote: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Family and Childhood

Neil Armstrong was born on his Grandfather Korspeter’s farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930. He was the oldest of three children born to Stephen and Viola Armstrong. The country was entering a Great Depression, when many men were out of work, but Stephen Armstrong managed to continue working as an auditor for the state of Ohio.

The family moved from one Ohio town to another as Stephen examined the books of various cities and counties. In 1944, they settled in Wapakoneta, where Neil finished high school.

A curious and gifted student, Armstrong read 90 books as a first grader and skipped second grade altogether. He played football and baseball in school, and played baritone horn in the school band; however, his main interest was in airplanes and flight.

Early Interest in Flying and Space

Neil Armstrong’s fascination with airplanes started as early as two years old; that was when his father took him to the 1932 National Air Show held in Cleveland. Armstrong was only six when he and his father took their first airplane ride -- in a Ford Tri-Motor, a passenger plane nicknamed the Tin Goose.

They had gone on a Sunday morning to see the plane when the pilot offered them a ride. While Neil was thrilled, his mother later chastised them both for missing church.

Armstrong’s mother bought him his first kit for building a model plane, but that was only the beginning for him. He made many models, from kits and from other materials and studied how to improve them. He eventually built a wind tunnel in his basement to explore the dynamics of airflow and its effect on his models. Armstrong earned money to pay for his models and magazines about flying by doing odd jobs, mowing lawns, and working in a bakery.

But Armstrong wanted to fly actual planes and convinced his parent to let him take flying lessons when he turned 15. He earned money toward the lessons by working at a market, making deliveries, and stocking shelves at a pharmacy. On his 16th birthday he earned his pilot’s license, before he even had a driver's license.

Off to War

In high school, Armstrong set his sights on studying aeronautical engineering, but wasn’t sure how his family could afford college. He learned that the United States Navy offered college scholarships to people who were willing to join the service. He applied and was awarded a scholarship.

In 1947, he entered Purdue University in Indiana.

After only two years there, Armstrong was called up to train as a naval air cadet in Pensacola, Florida, because the country was on the brink of war in Korea. During the war, he flew 78 combat missions as part of the first all-jet fighter squadron.

Based off the aircraft carrier USS Essex, the missions targeted bridges and factories. While dodging anti-aircraft fire, Armstrong's plane was twice crippled. Once he had to parachute and ditch his plane. Another time he managed to fly a damaged plane safely back to the carrier. He received three medals for his bravery.

In 1952, Armstrong was able to leave the navy and return to Purdue, where he received his B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering in January, 1955. While he was there he met Jan Shearon, a fellow student; on January 28, 1956, the two were married.

They had three children (two boys and a girl), but their daughter died at age three from a brain tumor.

Testing the Limits of Speed

In 1955, Neil Armstrong joined the Lewis Flight Propulsion Lab in Cleveland, which was part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) research arm. (NACA was the precursor to NASA.)

Soon after, Armstrong went to Edwards Air Force Base in California to fly experimental planes and supersonic craft. As a research pilot, test pilot, and engineer, Armstrong was daring, willing to take risks, and able to solve problems. He had improved his rubber-band driven model airplanes and at Edwards he helped solve problems arising in the design of space craft.

Over his lifetime, Neil Armstrong flew over 200 types of air and space craft: jets, gliders, helicopters, and rocket-like planes at high speeds. Among other planes, Armstrong flew the X-15, a supersonic plane. Launched from an already moving airplane, he flew at 3989 miles per hour -- over five times the speed of sound.

While he was in California, he began a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California. He finished the degree in 1970 -- after he had walked on the moon.

The Race to Space

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and the United States was shaken that it had fallen behind in efforts to reach beyond the limits of Earth.

NASA had three manned missions planned, aimed at landing a man on the moon:

  • Mercury -- a one-man vehicle that flew six missions (1961-1963)
  • Gemini -- two-man vehicle that flew ten missions (1965-1966)
  • Apollo -- three-man vehicle that flew eleven manned missions (1968-1975)


In 1959, Neil Armstrong applied to NASA when it was about to choose the men who would be part of these explorations.  Although he was not chosen to become one of “The Seven" (the first group to train for space), when the second group of astronauts, “The Nine,” was selected in 1962, Armstrong was among them. Armstrong was the only civilian to be chosen.

The Mercury flights were ending, but he trained for the next phase.

Gemini 8

The Gemini (meaning twin) Project sent two-man crews into earth’s orbit ten times. The objective was to test equipment and procedures and train astronauts and ground crews to prepare for the eventual journey to the moon.

As part of that program, Neil Armstrong and David Scott flew Gemini 8 on March 16, 1966. Their assignment was to dock a manned vehicle to a satellite already orbiting the earth. The satellite Agena was the target and Armstrong successfully docked to it; it was the first time that two vehicles had been docked together in space.

The mission was going smoothly until 27 minutes after docking when the joined satellite and Gemini began spinning out of control. Armstrong was able to undock, but the Gemini kept spinning faster and faster, ultimately spinning at one revolution per second. Armstrong kept his calm and his wits and was able to bring his craft under control and safely land it. (It was ultimately determined that roll thruster no. 8 on the Gemini had malfunctioned and had been constantly firing.)

Apollo 11: Landing on the Moon

NASA’s Apollo program was the keystone to its mission: to land humans on the moon and bring them safely back to Earth. The Apollo spacecraft, not much bigger than a closet, would be launched by a giant rocket into space.

Apollo would carry three astronauts into orbit around the moon, but only two of the men would take the lunar landing module down to the moon’s surface. (The third man would continue to orbit in the command module, to photograph and prepare for the return of the moon landers.)

Four Apollo teams (Apollo 7, 8, 9, and 10) tested equipment and procedures, but the team who would actually land on the moon was not chosen until January 9, 1969 when NASA announced that Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins would fly the Apollo 11and land on the moon.

Excitement mounted as the three men entered the capsule atop the launch rocket on the morning of July 16, 1969. There was a countdown that started, “Ten...nine...eight...” all the way to zero, when the rocked lifted off at 9:32 a.m. Three stages of the Saturn rocket sent the spacecraft on its way, each stage dropping away as it was spent. A million people watched the launch from Florida and over 600 million watched via television.

After a four day flight and two orbits around the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin undocked from Columbia and, with television cameras sending signals back to earth, flew the nine miles to the moon’s surface. At 3:17 p.m. (Houston time) on June 20, 1969, they radioed: "The Eagle has landed."

Over six hours later, Neil Armstrong, in his bulky spacesuit, descended the ladder and became the first man to step on an extraterrestrial surface. Armstrong then gave his iconic statement:

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Why the [a]?)

About 20 minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface. Armstrong spent just over two-and-a-half hours outside the lunar module, planting an American flag, taking pictures, and gathering materials to take back for study. The two astronauts then returned to the Eagle for some rest.

Twenty-one and a half hours after landing on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin blasted back to the Columbia and they began the return trip to Earth. At 12:50 p.m. on July 24, the Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where the three men were picked up helicopter.

Since no one had ever been to the moon before, scientists were worried that the astronauts might have returned with some unknown pathogens from space; thus, Armstrong and the others were quarantined for 18 days.

The three astronauts were heroes. They were greeted by U.S. President Richard Nixon, celebrated with parades in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities in the United States and around the world.

Armstrong was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many other accolades. Among the honors he received were the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the Explorers Club Medal, the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

After the Moon

Six more manned missions were sent in the Apollo program after Apollo 11. Although Apollo 13 malfunctioned so there was no landing, ten more astronauts joined the small cohort of moon walkers.

Armstrong continued with NASA until 1970, serving various roles, including Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics in Washington, DC. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986, Armstrong was appointed vice-chairman of the Presidential Commission to investigate the accident.

Between 1971 and 1979 Armstrong was professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Armstrong then moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, to serve as chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation, Inc. from 1982 to 1991.

After 38 years of marriage, Neil Armstrong and his wife Jan divorced in 1994. That same year, he married Carol Held Knight, on June 12, 1994, in Ohio.

Armstrong loved music, continuing to play the baritone horn as he had in high school, even forming a jazz group. As an adult he entertained his friends with jazz piano and funny stories.

After Armstrong retired from NASA, he served as a spokesperson for various U.S. businesses, most notably for Chrysler, General Tire, and Bankers Association of America. Political groups approached him to run for office but he declined. He had been a shy child and when admired for his accomplishments, he insisted that the team’s efforts were key.

Budget considerations and declining interest by the public led to President Barack Obama's policy to downsize NASA and encourage private companies to develop spaceships. In 2010, Armstrong admitted to "substantial reservations" and signed his name, along with two dozen other people formerly associated with NASA, to a letter that called Obama’s plan a "misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.*

On August 7, 2012, Neil Armstrong underwent surgery to relieve a blocked coronary artery. He died from complications on August 25, 2012 at age 82. His ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean on September 14, a day after a memorial tribute was held in his honor at Washington National Cathedral. (One of the stained glass windows at the Cathedral holds a moon rock brought to Earth by the Apollo 11 crew.)

America's Hero

The American ideal of what a hero should look like and be like was captured in this handsome, Midwestern man. Neil Armstrong was intelligent, hardworking, and dedicated to his dreams. From his first sight of airplanes performing aerial stunts at the National Air Show in Cleveland, he wanted to take to the sky. From his gazing at the heavens and studying the moon through a neighbor's telescope, he dreamed of being part of space exploration.

The boy's dream and the nation's ambitions came together in 1969 when Armstrong took the "small step for man" on the moon's surface.


* Todd Halvorson, “Moon Vets Say Obama’s NASA Cuts Would Ground U.S.” USA Today. April 25, 2014. []