It was July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong spoke what must be considered the most famous words of the 20th century, "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". This, of course, was the day that men from Earth first set foot on the Moon. It was the culmination of years of research and development, success and failure, and bitter competition from our feared rivals. And it was the words of a 38 year old Neil Armstrong that echo in the annals of history.
Neil Armstrong was born August 5, 1930 on a farm in Wapakoneta, Ohio. But proceeded to move around the state for most of his young life, before his family finally settled back in Wapakoneta in 1944. There Neil held many jobs around town, especially at the local airport as he was always fascinated with aviation. After starting flying lessons at the age of 15, he was awarded a pilots license on his 16th birthday, before he had earned a driver's license.
Naturally interested in aviation, Armstrong decided to pursue a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue University under the Holloway Plan. This scholarship sent deserving recipients to University for the completion of their bachelors degree before committing to at least three years of Naval service. At the conclusion of their time in the Navy, they would return to school for two more years of advanced study. Armstrong later completed his master's degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California in 1970.
Armstrong was called to Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida in 1949 before he could complete his degree. There he earned his wings at 20 years of age, making him the youngest pilot in his squadron. He then flew 78 combat mission in Korea, earning three medals, including the Korean Service Medal. But Armstrong was sent home before the conclusion of the war and finished his Bachelors degree in 1955.
Testing New Boundaries
After completing his degree at Purdue, Armstrong decided to try his hand as a test pilot. After an initial application to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) -- the prelude to the creation of NASA -- was turned down he took a post at Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. However, it was less than a year before Armstrong transfered to Edwards Air force Base (AFB) in California to work with the NACA's High Speed Flight Station.
During his tenure at Edwards Armstrong conducted test flights of over 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, being an engineer by training, had a technical efficiency to 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, that observed that his flying technique was too mechanical. They argued that flying was, at least in part, feel. Something that didn't come naturally to the engineers, and it was this fact that sometimes got them into trouble.
While Armstrong was a comparatively successful test pilot, he was involved in several ariel incidents. One of the most famous events involving Armstrong occurred on May 21, 1962 when he was sent to investigate Delamar Lake as a potential emergency landing site, flying an F-104. After an unsuccessful landing damaged the radio and hydraulic system, Armstrong headed toward Nellis Air Force Base. When attempting to land at Nellis, 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.
Upon radioing back to Edwards, Milt Thompson was dispatched in a F-104B to retrieve Armstrong. However, Milt had never flown this particular 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 ironically named Man In Space Soonest (MISS) program. Then in September of 1963 he was selected as the first American civilian to fly in space. (Russia launched civilian Valentina Tereshkova into space in June of 1963, beating Armstrong to space.)
In 1966 Armstrong flew on the Gemini 8 mission which launched March 16. Serving as Command Pilot, the crew was to complete the first ever docking with another space craft, 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 -- typically the only person who directly communicates with the astronauts during missions to space -- for Gemini 11. However, it was not until the Apollo program began that Armstrong ventured into space.