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23 February 2019

First Man

Tag(s): History, People, Technology
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the successful space mission by the USA to be the first nation to put a man on the moon, or indeed any other heavenly body, on 20th July, 1969. This fulfilled the ambition expressed by President John F Kennedy in a speech to Congress on 25th May, 1961 that the USA would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Politicians are often making predictions but it is rare that one that is so ambitious, and at the time of making it no one really knew how it could be done, is actually achieved and in the time frame.

The thirty-eight year old Neil A. Armstrong was the first person to step on the surface of the moon and at the time uttered the words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, possibly the most famous quotation by any man other than those attributed to the founders of religions. The expression “First Man” has attached itself to Armstrong ever since and his has indeed been a remarkable life, not just because of this mission, although that of course changed his life for ever, but because of the contribution he made personally to technical developments in air travel as well as space exploration.

A movie has been made of his life entitled “First Man”, starring Ryan Gosling in the title role and Claire Foy of The Crown fame as his first wife. I have not seen the film and it has had mixed reviews but I have read the book on which it was based[i]. Professor James R. Hansen took three years to convince Armstrong to cooperate in the writing of his life story and Armstrong insisted that it had to be an independent, serious biography. The two met for fifty-five hours of interviews and Armstrong agreed to read and comment on every draft chapter. Hansen, of course, interviewed many other characters in the story; family and friends and several of Armstrong’s fellow astronauts including Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, the two other astronauts who flew with Armstrong in Apollo 11.

In some ways Aldrin and Collins had more problems. Aldrin badly wanted to be the first man to step on the moon and lobbied hard for it. His father had been a First  World War airforce pilot and did his best to get his son the role. Armstrong never tried to influence the decision. The official line was that it was simply a question of logistics. As the captain of the lunar module Armstrong sat in the seat next to the hatch. For Aldrin to have gone first he would have had to clamber over Armstrong in a space the size of a station wagon. But the truth is more likely that NASA understood the significance of the First Man status and had seen how well Armstrong handled Public Relations on a tour of South America following his previous space journey on Gemini VIII. As for Collins he fully understood that if the lunar module had not been able to re-engage with the mother ship he would have had to leave Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon while he flew the space craft back to earth. He would undoubtedly have been reviled for this. Armstrong himself did not like the title “First Man”. He always insisted that Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon at the very same instant he did. But then he did utter the words “one small step….”

Neil Alden Armstrong was born in 1930 in Ohio and grew up in a small rural town. I don’t know the significance of this but all the seven Mercury astronauts grew up in Smallville America. People would later invent stories about the young Neil that he always had the ambition to go to the moon. He called that fiction saying it was unrealistic in those days to think that way but his ambitions from an early age were about aircraft. As a teenager he spent any money he could earn on flying lessons and got his pilot’s license before his driver’s license. As a sixteen year old he flew solo a round trip of 600 miles to preregister for aeronautical engineering classes at Purdue University in Indiana. His time there spanned seven-and-a-half years from 1947 to 1955 including a three year stint in the military. Most of the astronauts were men with experience of flying with the military but the majority of these including Armstrong were navy fliers. This may be because the navy sets a higher standard in that before passing out you must successfully take off from and land back on a moving Air Force carrier. Six of the seven commanders chosen to pilot Apollo spacecraft down to lunar landings were naval aviators. After Armstrong came fellow navy pilots Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. (Apollo 12), Alan Shepard (Apollo 14), John W. Young (Apollo 16), and Eugene A. Cernan (Apollo 17). Navy captain James A. Lovell Jr. would also have done so if not for the near tragic mishap on Apollo 13’s outbound flight. Only David R. Scott (Apollo 15) did his military flying with the US Air Force.

Armstrong’s military service coincided with the Korean War and he saw extensive service there with twenty-six flights of which nine were combat air patrols and over forty-one hours of flying time. On one bomb run, at around 350 miles per hour, Neil sliced through a cable, presumably a North Korean booby trap for low flying aircraft. Close to six feet of Neil’s right wing was shorn. He barely managed to fly to friendly territory, where his only option was to eject. He landed safely, if somewhat bruised, in a rice paddy.
After graduation Neil became an experimental test pilot with the ambition of becoming a research pilot whose job was to strive to advance the science and technology of flight. His work included space related flight as he studied high Mach-number heat transfer, flying over the Atlantic Ocean where they air-launched rockets that reached a hypersonic speed of Mach 5.02.  This, too, was dangerous work, while not flying into enemy territory. Armstrong was in the number two seat flying a B29 up to 30,000 feet to then drop it to take it through a flight investigation of its vertical tail loads. One of the engines quit and then with no power the propeller blade on number-four engine windmilled in the air stream. The captain then feathered the far starboard engine expecting the propeller to come to a standstill. Instead it started spinning again. A whole sequence of problems developed and the captain lost control. Armstrong flew the plane down with just one engine.

Armstrong had many such close encounters with death before passing away at the age of 82 from complications following a quadruple coronary bypass surgery. He became one of the most famous persons in the world because of his historic moon mission. He handled the consequent fame with great dignity and patience. There were many crazy stories that emerged that he would have to deal with. Religious and other nutcases followed him around. His boyhood hero Charles Lindbergh advised him not to sign anything and he did not follow this advice at first. That meant that any number of fake Neil Armstrong autographs would be sold at auction for tens of thousands of dollars. He learnt through hard experience not to give interviews as if these were solo invariably the journalist would take advantage and misreport the story. Press conferences were OK as there were numerous people in the room and so the reporting would be more accurate. He travelled almost as far on earth as on his return trip to the moon in representing his country and its successful space programme.  Once he left the space programme and took up a job teaching at a university he still had to deal with the immense mail bag he continued to receive. At his own expense he employed a private secretary to attempt to deal with this, but even she could not deal with ten thousand pieces of mail per day. His regular barber even tried to profit from the relationship by selling his hair.

But his greatest contribution may have been something different. Until he became deputy associate administrator for aeronautics, no one at NASA Headquarters had given the radical concept of flying an aeroplane electronically much credence. Neil stunned a team of Flight Research Center engineers when they visited his office in 1970 asking for modest funding to conduct flight research with an aeroplane installed with an analogue fly-by-wire system. To their surprise, Armstrong objected. “Why analogue technology?” he asked. Rather than a system of human impulses transmitted by mechanical linkages from the cockpit to the control surfaces, Neil proposed employing a more advanced system, one based on counting – on digital fly-by-wire. The FRC engineers knew of no flight-qualified digital computer. “I just went to the Moon and back on one,” said Armstrong. The visitors from the FRC admitted with embarrassment that they had not even thought of it.

[i] First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. James R. Hansen. Revised 50th anniversary edition 2018. Simon & Schuster

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