Posted by: bkivey | 25 August 2012

The Longest Step

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”

Neil Alden Armstrong died today in Columbus, Ohio, of complications from cardiovascular surgery. He was 82.  An accomplished pilot and engineer, Armstrong’s life was defined by one moment on a July day in 1969, when he became the first human to walk on another world.

His selection as the first person on the Moon came in large part through his preparation. He earned an aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue University, and as a Navy and civilian test pilot, he flew just about everything with wings, and some without, in the US military inventory. After participating in the X-15 program, he was selected for Gemini. As commander of Gemini 8, he and David Scott performed the first orbital docking.

He was later named to the Apollo program, and here is where the element of chance came into play. Originally assigned to the Apollo 9 backup crew, production delays in the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) caused NASA to swap crews for Apollo 8 and 9, putting Armstrong in the rotation for the Apollo 11 crew. The LEM door swung in and to the right, making it difficult for the LEM pilot (Aldrin for Apollo 11) to exit the vehicle first. Other considerations that put Armstrong as the first on the Moon was the fact that he was the mission commander, and the perception among NASA management that he didn’t have a large ego.

Shortly after Apollo 11 Armstrong earned his Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the University of  Southern California, and resigned from NASA in 1971. He spent eight years as Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He also acted as spokesman for several companies, including Chrysler.

Armstrong was never much of a publicity hound, refusing interview requests, and ceased giving out his autograph in 1994. My middle sister wrote him a letter in the late ’70’s requesting an autographed photo, which Armstrong granted, much to the surprise and delight of my mother, who promptly confiscated the picture.

There may well be other small steps and giant leaps on other worlds, but only one person can lay claim to be the first to set foot on a non-terrestrial surface. As Mr. Armstrong takes the longest step, I say “Fair skies, Neil.”

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