Neil Armstrong -- A Test Pilot's Test Pilot


America and the world salute Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 astronaut who became the first human being to set foot on the moon and who died Aug. 25, 2012, aged 82. Inspiring millions with his actions, yet shunning the celebratory status which followed the lunar landing in July 1969, Armstrong remained an unassuming and deeply private man to the end.

Armstrong’s astonishing life in aerospace included combat missions with the U.S. Navy, flying as a test pilot for NASA and commanding the Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. Back on the ground after his flying exploits, Armstrong served as Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics at NASA headquarters in Washington before becoming professor of aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati from 1971 to 1979. Along with stints in industry, he also served as vice chairman of the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger disaster in 1986, and later, in 2003, was on the panel that investigated the loss of the Columbia.

Armstrong and the 'Eagle' Lunar Module on the moon in July 1969 (NASA)

Described in a statement by his family as a “reluctant American hero”, Armstrong made few public appearances and avoided the limelight. However the statement says “as much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life. While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”

One of the few arenas in which Armstrong appeared to be more than happy to speak however was the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP). As a fellow of the Society, he was an occasional speaker and obviously felt very much at home as he shared his views and flight test experiences. One of these talks, delivered to a rapt audience at the SETP’s annual symposium in 2007, covered the development and testing of the LLRV/LLTV (lunar landing research/training vehicle). The LLRV was built to help develop systems and piloting techniques to land the Apollo Lunar Module in the low gravity environment of the moon.

 After Armstrong had finished his talk, I asked him about how much the experiences of testing the LLRV – including his ejection from the LLRV-1 which crashed in May 1968 – had really prepared him for that fateful first moon landing on July 20 the following year.

The landing was one of the most dangerous and momentous phases in the history of exploration. With less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining, Armstrong – aided with altitude callouts from Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin beside him – calmly piloted the Eagle Lunar Module around large boulders to a landing in the football field-sized crater to which it had been directed by the vehicle’s auto-tracker system. The heart-stopping wait for confirmation of the safe landing prompted the now famous quote from Charlie Duke (Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz’s Capsule Communications – CAPCOM) who said “Roger Tranquility we copy you down. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot!”

But what did Neil Armstrong think? Was he turning blue up there too? The answer, as it happened, was the typically unflappable response from a seasoned test pilot. He told me “Oh, we had quite a few seconds to spare – it was longer than most people think. There was really plenty of time, and it’s exactly what we’d been training for. The simulator system really worked.”

No wonder, I thought, that NASA chose this man to land Apollo 11!

... and finally a thought from his family:

"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

Please or Register to post comments.

What's On Space?

On Space

Blog Archive

Sponsored Introduction Continue on to (or wait seconds) ×