I was 11 years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I remember my parents calling me in from the backyard to watch history being made on our black and white Zenith television set.
I joined a global audience of more than 500 million viewers who watched the landing—an event that met the goal set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to get a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
At first, the CBS broadcast we watched showed a simulation of the landing craft along with the audio from Houston and the Apollo 11 crew (Armstrong and colleagues Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins). After the landing, however, the screen went live. The picture wasn’t as clear as normal television shows, and it came in upside down for a while. My mom said that things like that were bound to happen with a signal coming all the way from the moon, but I remember trying to figure out how a camera on the moon got turned upside down.
The excitement really came when Armstrong descended the ladder from the lunar module. When he got to the bottom, he was standing on a base, not the lunar surface. As he stepped off the base, he uttered his famous statement: “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” Unfortunately, Neil dropped the word “a,” or it was lost in the transmission. Without the “a,” the statement is more an inconsistency than a profound insight, but I accepted the quote as published in the NASA book my parents got me (a promotional item at Gulf gas stations)—with the “a.”
The landing and safe return was a major undertaking, rife with dangers that children my age didn’t fully comprehend, but the astronauts did. They signed autographs in bulk as a form of insurance, figuring that their families could sell them if things went bad. CBS had obituaries ready to broadcast if that became necessary.
Another part of the mission that may have been lost on children was the importance of the competition with the Soviet Union. Sputnik, the first human-made satellite, was launched by the Soviets in 1957. Suddenly, they were ahead in the space race. Landing on the moon and returning safely would put the United States back in the lead, but the Soviets didn’t want that to happen.
“I can positively state that the Soviet Union will not be beaten by the United States in the race for a human being to go to the moon,” said cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in 1966, according to History.com.
Three years later, while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface at the Sea of Tranquility, the Soviet Luna 15 probe crashed into the moon, about 530 miles away. Luna 15’s mission had been to collect samples from the moon’s surface and return them to Earth. If it had been successful, the samples would have been the first lunar material on the planet, and the Soviets would have done it with robots. In the PR war between the two superpowers, that would have been a coup.
When Luna 15 crashed, the Soviets were silent. They even denied that they had a lunar-landing program. In propaganda broadcasts to Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Radio Moscow referred to the U.S.’s Apollo project as “the fanatical squandering of wealth looted from the oppressed peoples of the developing world.” They stayed with that story until 1989, when a group of U.S. aerospace engineers went to Moscow and saw the failed lunar-landing craft. There was no more denying. There had been a race, and the USA had won.
The astronauts were heroes to children of all ages (adults too). Like many youngsters, I had astronaut toys; my friends and I pretended to take space flights. I also had a special connection with Armstrong. The summer that Apollo 11 landed on the moon, my father took a job at Purdue University, where Armstrong had studied. There was a park in town named in his honor. In fact, the neighborhood rumor was that he had a friend who lived nearby, and he would sometimes drive past our house.
The law school at the University of Mississippi houses the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law. Several years ago, I was speaking with Joanne Gabrynowicz, who was then the director of the center. Gabrynowicz is internationally known in the space law community, and she travels the globe to attend related conferences, presentations, and negotiations.
When I told her that Armstrong had been my hero, she said, “You picked a good one.” I was in awe; she actually knew him!
After Apollo 11, Armstrong was through with flying in space. He got involved with some business interests and accepted a teaching position in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He taught a heavy load (including core classes) and created a couple of graduate-level classes. After eight years of teaching and research, he stepped down from that position, but continued to stay on top of space and engineering matters.
That’s how Gabrynowicz knew him. They attended conferences together. He knew the relevant science and engineering and contributed to many projects, including serving as vice chairman for the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and serving on a presidential commission charged with developing a plan for U.S. civilian spaceflight. Armstrong didn’t seek out the spotlight, but he contributed his talents until his death in 2012 at age 82.
Today, Purdue University proudly houses Armstrong’s papers and boasts of the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, home to the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the School of Materials Engineering, and the first School of Engineering Education established in the country. Just recently, I learned how he decided to pursue his education at Purdue.
The story goes back to 1945, when the young Armstrong, a native of Wapakoneta, Ohio, attended a football game at Ohio State. The undefeated Buckeyes were ranked No. 4 in the nation. They were hosting the also-undefeated Purdue Boilermakers, who were led by a freshman quarterback named Bob DeMoss (later, an important coach in Purdue history). The visitors from West Lafayette pulled off an upset win, 35–13.
Armstrong had been planning to attend MIT, but he loved football. He began thinking: Purdue had a great engineering program and Big 10 football, so why not stay in the Midwest? He accepted a Navy scholarship to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue. Thus, the first man to walk on the moon chose his college much the way many young people do even today—by considering academic programs, cost, location, and college sports.
There are many other great stories about Armstrong. He flew 78 missions in the Korean War, one time being forced to eject after his jet sustained serious damage; he flew seven test flights in the X-15 rocket; he handled a near-disaster in Gemini 8; and he flew a dawn combat patrol in 1951 and saw rows and rows of unarmed North Korean soldiers doing morning calisthenics, but he didn’t fire.
It might have been nice to hear him tell those stories, but there’s also something nice about a decent man who quietly did his job and did it well.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.