A reluctant icon: His ice-cool courage held the world spellbound, but Neil Armstrong HATED being a heroby David Thomas, dailymail.co.uk
August 26th 2012
Altitude fifty-two hundred feet.’ The voice in Neil Armstrong’s ear was calm and matter of fact as his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin gave him data on the final descent of a mission officially designated Eastern Test Range No. 5307.
But to the countless millions of people on Planet Earth, huddled round TV sets, pressing their ears to transistor radios or desperately waiting for the next day’s papers, it had a different name: Apollo 11.
And what Aldrin was describing was the final, most dangerous mile of the greatest journey in human history.
The date was July 20, 1969. They had been four days in space, covering the 240,000-odd miles between Earth and the Moon. For most of that time the mission had proceeded with a perfect, almost eerie smoothness.
Two-and-a-half hours earlier Armstrong, who died at the weekend aged 82, and Aldrin had crawled into the lunar module, a strange, ungainly looking craft with the codename Eagle.
With Aldrin, the module’s official pilot, at the controls they detached from the main command module, leaving their companion Michael Collins behind and set off on the final phase of their journey to the surface of the Moon.
And then, things started to go wrong. The Eagle’s computer, blessed with just 2K of memory — one millionth of the processing power of a modern laptop — overloaded. It started flashing ‘error’ messages.
The system looked as if it was about to crash. And if it went, so would the flimsy spacecraft.
To make matters worse, the view of the Moon’s cold, grey surface beneath them was not what Armstrong and Aldrin had expected.
They were passing over landmarks intended to guide them into their landing area four seconds too early. That meant they were going to overshoot.
Instead of touching down on the flat, smooth, innocuous terrain of the Sea of Tranquility, the Eagle was heading for a crater beyond it filled with rocks and boulders, any one of which could smash it to smithereens.
Armstrong was the mission commander, the kind who led from the front. He took over the controls and prepared to fly into the crater.
At Mission Control in Houston, the computer engineer Jack Garman concluded the ‘error’ warnings could safely be ignored. Now Charles Duke, Nasa’s Capsule Communicator or CAPCOM could assure the two astronauts: ‘You are Go for landing, over.’
Neil Armstrong was coming in to land. It was the end of a voyage that started almost 39 years earlier, when he was born in the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, in the heart of the Midwest.
The long wait: Neil Armstrong's wife Janet pictured during the mission
As commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong was a national hero and he certainly had a hero’s curriculum vitae. Too young to fight in World War II, he’d served in the Korean War as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, flying 78 low-level ground attack missions over enemy territory.
From 1955 to 1962, Armstrong was also a test pilot working on top-secret experimental programmes designed to create super-fast rocket planes that might eventually be capable of space flight. Taking off from the Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert, east of Los Angeles, he piloted more than 200 types of aircraft.
In one of his final flights, he took an X-15 aircraft at 4,000mph up to a height of 207,500ft — almost 40 miles — at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere.
And Armstrong had brains to go with his flying brilliance. He had a degree in aero-nautical engineering from Purdue University, where he also played the baritone horn in the university’s marching band, and a master’s degree from the University of Southern California.
To the delight of the media, who liked to present astronauts as paragons of domestic virtue as well as spacemen of courage, he had married his college sweetheart, Janet Shearon. They’d had three children, Eric, Karen and Mark, but suffered tragedy when Karen was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour before dying of pneumonia in 1962, aged just two.
Armstrong doted on the little girl, nicknamed Muffie. Her death shattered her father, who believed he was in some way responsible for passing on the disease in his genes.
His sister June said she ‘feared his heart would break’ and believes the tragic loss may have prompted him to put his name forward for astronaut selection a few months later.
‘The death of his little girl caused him to invest his energies into something very positive, and that’s when he started into the space programme,’ she told James Hansen, with whom Armstrong collaborated on his biography.
Karen’s death also put a strain on his marriage. Family members said his wife resented the way he went straight back to work when she needed his support.
Armstrong never talked about Karen. It was not his style to be emotional. For in his own mind he was a long way from the public’s daredevil image of the typical astronaut. He would later say: ‘I am and ever will be a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.’
In The Right Stuff, his definitive book about the early days of the space programme, writer Tom Wolfe described how Armstrong puzzled his fellow astronauts when he joined Nasa in the autumn of 1962.
‘He had a close blond crew cut and small pale blue eyes — and his expression hardly ever changed.
‘You’d ask him a question, and he would just stare at you, and you’d start to ask the question again, figuring he hadn’t understood, and click — out of his mouth would come forth a sequence of long, quiet, precisely formed sentences.’
In March 1966, Armstrong was given his first space assignment as commander of the two-man Gemini 8 mission. Then on December 23, 1968, he received the news that would define his entire life: his appointment as commander of Apollo 11.
Vast sums had been poured into the space programme. In 1961 President Kennedy addressed the U.S. Congress and declared America should set the goal of ‘landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth’ by the end of the decade.
The race to the Moon was the ultimate test of America v Russia; capitalism v communism; freedom v dictatorship.
The mighty Saturn V rocket of the Apollo 11 mission was 363ft high and weighed 3,000 tons fully loaded with an explosive blend of rocket fuel and liquid oxygen.
High atop this terrifying craft, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins had strapped themselves in before blast-off on the morning of July 16.
Hundreds of thousands of people jammed the roads for miles around the launch site at the Kennedy Space Centre, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The BBC accompanied its broadcast of the blast-off with a new song called Space Oddity, written by an unknown folk singer from South London, David Bowie.
But the excitement at the moment of blast-off was as nothing compared to the tension as the lunar module, alias Eagle, came in to land.
Across the world, 600 million people sat glued to their flickering black and white TVs. In Britain, where the landing happened in the early hours of the morning, countless children were woken from their beds to witness the occasion.
For the first time in history, an event of monumental significance was followed by the entire world in real time. And not one of them — not even the technicians and scientists at Mission Control in Houston — could do anything other than pray as the two brave men in their little tin can flew closer to the boulder-strewn surface of the Moon.
Aldrin kept counting down the altitude of the craft and the angle of its descent. They fell below 1,000ft, then 100ft, then 20ft.
‘Picking up some dust,’ said Aldrin.
‘Drifting to the right a little,’ said Armstrong.
The probes on to the module’s feet scraped the lunar surface, setting off a light on the panel in front of Aldrin. ‘Contact light,’ he said. There was a scarcely perceptible shudder in the craft as it came to a halt.
Neil Armstrong had just landed on the Moon. He did not whoop or cheer. That was not his style. He just commanded: ‘Shutdown.’
‘OK, engine stop,’ said Aldrin.
The two men went through their jargon-laden landing checklist. Then Charles Duke at Mission Control cut in: ‘We copy you down, Eagle.’
Now they were on the ground, the astronauts had officially created America’s first base on the Moon. And it was as its commander that Neil Armstrong next spoke to Earth: ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’
According to the mission plan, Armstrong and Aldrin were supposed to sleep for the next five hours. But how could even the most calm, collected engineering geek sleep in such extraordinary circumstances?
The two men were awake until the time came for Armstrong to don his life-support system, squeeze through the Eagle’s door, climb down the ladder, step onto the surface of the Moon and say: ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’
People have speculated for years as to the origins of his words. One theory is that he was inspired by a line from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The hero Bilbo Baggins jumps over his enemy Gollum in a tunnel, in what Tolkien described as: ‘Not a great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark.’
There should, of course, have been an ‘a’ before the word ‘man’ when Armstrong spoke to the world. Some say it was lost in transmission, others that Armstrong, for once, made a mistake.
But what did it matter? America had won the race to the Moon and asserted its dominance over the world Apollo 11 had left behind.
This was the highpoint of the American Century. Within a month, the hippy, druggy, rock-powered Woodstock Festival would throw down an all-conquering challenge to the crew-cut respectability that Neil Armstrong embodied.
Less than six years later, communist North Vietnamese would march victoriously into Saigon, while America’s diplomats and spies desperately scrambled for the helicopters that would fly them, defeated, from their embassy roof.
In the following decades the rocketing price of oil, rise of militant Islam and burgeoning economic power of first Japan and then China would threaten the status of the U.S. But for now America ruled supreme And Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon, symbol of all that the United States held dear, was the very King of America — and the world.
The hero, however, was left with a deep and lifelong unease about the fame he had acquired. His aversion to publicity in later life can only have been strengthened after he was immersed in scandal soon after the Apollo mission.
In Christmas 1969, he joined Bob Hope’s United Service Organisation world tour to entertain U.S. and allied troops in Vietnam and elsewhere. Armstrong faced press claims that he and a 31-year-old singer-actress, Connie Stevens, had become romantically involved and that, after their return, he had repeatedly been spotted in the audience of her show in Las Vegas.
The truth, according to the pair, is that they had done nothing more intimate than play cards to pass the time during the tour.
Even some of his fellow astronauts resented Armstrong’s reclusiveness, complaining that it was damaging to Nasa’s efforts in the space race.
Jim Lovell — captain of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission — said he told Armstrong that as taxpayers had funded his space trip, ‘there is a certain amount of return that is due them’.
Armstrong replied: ‘I’d be harassed all the time if I wasn’t reclusive.’
But he could never escape his fame and it became a source of desperate sadness. His wife Janet left him in 1989 (they finally divorced in 1994), saying she could no longer live with the ‘personality’ that Armstrong had become.
A close friend named Gene Cernan said ‘she just got tired of being Mrs Neil Armstrong. She wanted her own identity’.
Friends say Armstrong became deeply depressed for several years after the divorce.
He found salvation with Carol Knight, a widow. The couple met over the breakfast table at a golfing tournament and within two years were married in Ohio, where they lived quietly for the past 18 years.
Janet told Armstrong’s biographer James Hansen: ‘Everyone gives Neil the greatest credit for not trying to take advantage of his fame, not like other astronauts have done.
‘But look what it’s done to him inside. He feels guilty that he got all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people.’
Janet said her former husband never liked being singled out.
‘I don’t want to be a living memorial,’ he said, preferring to ‘bask in obscurity’.
But for the first man to walk on the moon, that was an impossible dream.
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