Neil Armstrong is best known for being the first man on the moon. He also served as a US Navy aviator, was a Korean War veteran, and taught college students as a professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He is often referred to as a reluctant hero, keeping an unbelievable amount of humility throughout his career in aviation.
On 5 August 1930, Neil Armstrong was born in the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio. He was the oldest of three children. His family moved to many towns in his youth due to his father’s job as an auditor for the state government. His interest in flight is said to have developed at an early age. His father took Neil to the Cleveland Air Races at two years old, then for a ride in his first aircraft at five.
He began making gliders and model airplanes. His goal was to get the models to a higher altitude and faster speed. To accomplish this, he made a wind tunnel in the basement of his childhood home. Neil was also involved in the Boy Scouts, where many say he gained team work skills. As he followed the exploits of WWII fighter pilots, he began learning how to fly. Neil got his pilot license at 15 years old.
Neil wanted to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering. He applied, and was approved, to have tuition paid for by the Holloway Plan naval education scholarship. He completed two years of his degree before reporting to Pensacola for flight training. He became qualified as a Naval Aviator after completion of the training.
He was ultimately assigned to the VF-51 Fighter Squadron, which traveled on the USS Essex to Korea. He flew the Grumman F9F Panther single engine, straight wing fighter jet. He flew in reconnaissance missions and bombing campaigns. During one mission, he ran into an anti-aircraft wire which removed part of the right wing of the plane. The only option was to eject from the plane. In many interviews, colleagues report that Neil was able to remain calm during stressful situations. He flew 78 missions during the Korean War.
In 1952, Neil returned to Purdue to finish the last two years of his degree. He became involved in a student musical revue, Kappa Kappa Psi Band Fraternity and the marching band as a baritone player. Neil met his future wife, Janet, as well. He graduated in 1955 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical engineering.
Upon graduation, Neil pursued a career as an experimental research test pilot. He worked on multiple aircraft development projects. One of the most notable tasks was experimenting with heavy bomber airdrop of a research aircraft. The test had begun and one of the engines stopped on the bomber. The pilots were unable to land because the research plane to be airdropped was attached to the underside of the heavy bomber. Neil Armstrong and his fellow pilot were able to maneuver the bomber into a nose down position to launch the research aircraft. One of the engines failed completely and other engines had to be shutdown. The aircraft was able to land safely after.
To compete in the Space Race, the US established the Man in Space soonest program. Neil Armstrong was selected to participate in 1958. He started as a pilot consultant for military spacecraft. Shortly after, Neil applied for the Apollo program in June of 1962. He was offered a spot in the program that September.
Neil was assigned the role of Command Pilot. The Gemini mission was the sixth manned spaceflight in the program. The mission objective was successful docking of two in-orbit spacecraft. The Gemini spacecraft launched from a Titan II rocket on 16 March 1966. The Gemini spacecraft was successfully docked to the Agena target vehicle. After docking, the spacecraft began deviating from the planned course. The pilots decided to detach the Gemini from the Agena. The Gemini began to roll, necessitating the use of Reentry Control System to steady the spacecraft. The mission had to be aborted, the spacecraft returned to Earth.
Multiple people involved in the space program, including Neil, were invited to Washington DC for the Outer Space Treaty signing. The treaty prevented nations from claiming celestial bodies or installing weapons of mass destruction in space. On the same day, the Apollo 1 fire accident occurred.
The crew rotation for the Apollo missions was shuffled, placing Neil Armstrong in line to be Commander of Apollo 11. Buzz Aldrin was selected to operate the lunar module, Michael Collins would pilot the command module. NASA officials determined that Neil would be the first person on the moon due to his position as Commander, proximity to the vehicle hatch, and humble nature.
The launch occurred 16 July 1969. The spacecraft was carried by a Saturn V rocket. The service module separated from the rocket and docked with the lunar module. The spacecraft was then piloted to translunar orbit. The lunar module, Eagle, detached from the Columbia spacecraft and made contact with the moon 20 July 1969.
On the surface of the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin planted a US flag. The astronauts tested the ease of performing operations in the low gravity environment. Lunar study equipment was set up. Armstrong left memorial items for Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Komarov, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White.
Neil Armstrong took a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Reports say that he turned down professor roles at larger schools because he didn’t want colleagues to be disgruntled that he was teaching at a college level with a master’s degree. He taught at the university for eight years.
Armstrong, for the most part, stayed out of the public eye. He participated in a North Pole expedition in 1985. He hosted a documentary series in the early 90’s called first Flights with Neil Armstrong. Neil Armstrong passed away in August 2012. He has had multiple educational institutions named in his honor, including the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at his alma mater, Purdue University. He is one of the most decorated astronauts in history, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, among others.
To learn more about Neil Armstrong, visit the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio or read his biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen.Each month, we research the events and people that have shaped aviation. Explore aviation history HERE