Meet Neil Armstrong

The First Man to Walk on the Moon

Neil Armstrong Pictures - View of Astronaut Neil Armstrong in Lunar Module
Neil Armstrong Pictures - View of Astronaut Neil Armstrong in Lunar Module. NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC)

On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong spoke the most famous words of the 20th century when he stepped out from his lunar lander and said, "It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". His action was the culmination of years of research and development, success and failure sustained by both the U.S. and then-Soviet Union in the race to the Moon.

Early Life

Neil Armstrong was born August 5, 1930 on a farm in Wapakoneta, Ohio. As a youth, Neil held many jobs around town, especially at the local airport. He was always fascinated with aviation. After starting flying lessons at the age of 15, he got his pilot's license on his 16th birthday, before he had earned a driver's license.

Armstrong decided to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University before committing to serving in the Navy. 

In 1949, Armstrong was called to Pensacola Naval Air Station before he could complete his degree. There he earned his wings at the age of 20, the youngest pilot in his squadron. He flew 78 combat mission in Korea, earning three medals, including the Korean Service Medal. Armstrong was sent home before the conclusion of the war and finished his bachelors degree in 1955.

Testing New Boundaries

After college, Armstrong decided to try his hand as a test pilot. He applied to National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — the agency that preceded NASA — as a test pilot, but was turned down. So, he took a post at Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. However, it was less than a year before Armstrong transferred to Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California to work at NACA's High Speed Flight Station.

During his tenure at Edwards Armstrong conducted test flights of more than 50 types of experimental aircraft, logging 2,450 hours of air time. Among his accomplishments in these aircraft, Armstrong was able to achieve speeds of Mach 5.74 (4,000 mph or 6,615 km/h) and an altitude of 63,198 meters (207,500 feet), but in the X-15 aircraft.

Armstrong had a technical efficiency in his flying that was the envy of most of his colleagues. However, he was criticized by some of the non-engineering pilots, including Chuck Yeager and Pete Knight, who observed that his technique was "too mechanical". They argued that flying was, at least in part, feel, that it was something that didn't come naturally to the engineers. This sometimes got them into trouble.

While Armstrong was a comparatively successful test pilot, he was involved in several aerial incidents that didn't work out so well. One of the most famous occurred when he was sent in an F-104 to investigate Delamar Lake as a potential emergency landing site. After an unsuccessful landing damaged the radio and hydraulic system, Armstrong headed toward Nellis Air Force Base. When he tried to land, the tail hook of the plane lowered due to the damaged hydraulic system and caught the arresting wire on the air field. The plane slid out of control down the runway, dragging the anchor chain along with it.

The problems didn't end there. Pilot Milt Thompson was dispatched in an F-104B to retrieve Armstrong. However, Milt had never flown that aircraft, and ended up blowing one of the tires during a hard landing. The runway was then closed for the second time that day to clear the landing path of debris. A third aircraft was sent to Nellis, piloted by Bill Dana. But Bill almost landed his T-33 Shooting Star long, prompting Nellis to send the pilots back to Edwards using ground transportation.

Crossing Into Space

In 1957, Armstrong was selected for the "Man In Space Soonest" (MISS) program. Then in September, 1963 he was selected as the first American civilian to fly in space. 

Three years later, Armstrong was the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission, which launched March 16. Armstrong and his crew performed the first-ever docking with another spacecraft, an unmanned Agena target vehicle. After 6.5 hours in orbit they were able to dock with the craft, but due to complications they were unable to complete what would have been the third-ever "extra-vehicular activity", now referred to as a space walk.

Armstrong also served as the CAPCOM, who is typically the only person who to communicate directly with the astronauts during missions to space. He did this for the Gemini 11 mission. However, it was not until the Apollo program began that Armstrong again ventured into space.

The Apollo Program

Armstrong was commander of the back-up crew of the Apollo 8 mission, though he had been originally scheduled to back-up the Apollo 9 mission. (Had he remained as the back-up commander, he would have been slated to command Apollo 12, not Apollo 11.)

Initially, Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module Pilot, was to be the first to set foot on the Moon. However, because of the positions of the astronauts in the module, it would require Aldrin to physically crawl over Armstrong to reach the hatch. As such, it was decided that it would be easier for Armstrong to exit the module first upon landing.

Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, at which point Armstrong declared, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Apparently, Armstrong had only seconds of fuel left before the thrusters would cut out. If that had happened, the lander would have plummeted to the surface. That didn't happen, much to everyone's relief. Armstrong and Aldrin exchanged congratulations before quickly preparing the lander to launch off the surface in case of an emergency.

Humanity's Greatest Achievement

On July 20, 1969, Armstrong made his way down the ladder from the Lunar Lander and, upon reaching the bottom declared "I'm going to step off the LEM now." As his left boot made contact with the surface he then spoke the words that defined a generation, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

About 15 minutes after exiting the module, Aldrin joined him on the surface and they began investigating the lunar surface. They planted the American flag, collected rock samples, took images and video, and transmitted their impressions back to Earth.

The final task carried out by Armstrong was to leave behind a package of memorial items in remembrance of deceased Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, and Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. All told, Armstrong and Aldrin spent 2.5 hours on the lunar surface, paving the way for other Apollo missions.

The astronauts then returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. Armstrong was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon civilians, as well as a host of other medals from NASA and other countries.

Life After Space

After his Moon trip, Neil Armstrong completed a master's degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California, and worked as an administrator with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He next turned his attention to education, and accepted a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati with the department of Aerospace Engineering. He held this appointment until 1979. Armstrong also served on two investigation panels. The first was after the Apollo 13 incident, while the second came after the Challenger explosion.

Armstrong lived much of his life after NASA life outside the public eye, and worked in private industry and consulted for NASA until his retirement. He died on August 25, 2012 and his ashes were buried at sea in the Atlantic Ocean the following month. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.