Before manned space flights began, officials pondered what background they should seek in the crew for this bizarre new venture: Danger lover? Bullfighter? Mountain climber? Should they search for people who were self-aware and calm in extreme conditions? A deep-sea diver, perhaps? Finally, they settled on — and President Dwight Eisenhower supported — experimental test pilots, people who had already guided complex new flying machines. Thus the original seven astronauts were selected in 1959.
In 1962 I was a budding test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California — our Mecca — and much interested in joining NASA's second crew selection. Pondering the competition, I wrote to my father on April 19 that "Neil Armstrong will be on the list ... because he has by far the best background." Neil, a former Navy fighter pilot, was a combat veteran employed by NASA at Edwards. He was testing new Air Force and Navy aircraft, as well as rocket ships. His flights in the rocket-powered X-15 alone put him a stratosphere above the rest of us.
It was no surprise that Neil advanced to make the first docking in space, as commander of Gemini 8, and then moved to Apollo, where Buzz Aldrin and I joined his crew. By then he had proven his technical competence many times over, but I didn't really know the man behind the reputation.
Neil, who will be memorialized Thursday at the National Cathedral, always seemed serious and businesslike, but you could make him laugh if you tried. It was real laughter, because Neil did not pretend. He was genuine through and through. He signaled displeasure with silence, never an outburst. He had high standards and stuck to them.
The best way to get Neil talking was to start with airplanes. He knew more about planes than anyone I've ever met, real ones and children's models. We both were model builders from an early age, and we always wanted them to go higher and faster. My solution? Another few turns on the rubber band. Neil's? Build a wind tunnel.
Wind tunnels are serious, high-tech business but one that Neil turned into fun. Before putting power to the tunnel he built in the basement, Neil invited his grandmother to stand in front of it. When he threw the switch, the wind blew her housecoat off.
Neil was smart as hell — and an encyclopedia of knowledge of things far beyond air and space. He trotted out tidbits on occasion. After the flight of Apollo 11, we went on a world tour. One evening we found ourselves in Yugoslavia at a formal dinner hosted by Marshal Tito and his wife, Madame Broz. The small talk got smaller and smaller, with madame doing a fine imitation of an Easter Island monolith: frozen, staring straight ahead. Neil bent over and started talking quietly to her, and when I strained to listen, I was astounded that he was talking about Nikola Tesla, the early electric genius and competitor of Thomas Edison. Had Neil lost his mind? No, Madame Broz lit up like a thousand-watt bulb, and from then on we were all buddies, including even the taciturn Tito. Later I asked Neil about his choice of topic. "Oh," he replied offhandedly, "she is related to Tesla."
Once, while visiting a museum in Italy, Neil drew a crowd — not because he was recognized as that man on the moon but because, standing with friends before a case of Leonardo da Vinci's model machines, he explained their intricacies in such detail that passersby assumed he was an English-speaking tour director and stopped to listen.
After the publicity of the Apollo flights died down, Neil's quiet demeanor was criticized. Some faulted his reticence, wanting an advocate to get out and sell the space program. But by holding to his lifelong yardsticks of honesty, humility and grace, Neil did more than any salesman or huckster. Some called him a recluse, but I think they were wrong. He supported numerous causes, especially those sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, our professional society. When other Apollo flights were honored, Neil usually showed up, making the point that Apollo 11 had depended on their accomplishments. In recent years, he visited Iraq and Afghanistan. He even led cheers at a football game at his beloved alma mater, Purdue University. If this is a recluse, our nation needs more of them — people who don't seek the limelight but can live competently in its glare, people who are the antithesis of some of today's empty-headed celebrities.
Neil was the consummate decision-maker, which is what you look for in a mission commander. He made decisions slowly, pondering their outcome if time allowed but acting decisively when necessary. For his lunar landing he picked his spot carefully, bypassing boulder fields. When he finally set down, he had less than a minute of fuel remaining. Good decisions all the way.
Age treated Neil well. As more accolades came his way, he took them in stride. He never showed a trace of arrogance, and he had plenty to be arrogant about. It was refreshing to see him as modest as ever. When my wife, Pat, and I had lunch with Neil and his wife, Carol, this spring, he seemed relaxed, cheerful, contented, happy. I like to remember him that way. He deserved all the good things that came his way. He was the best, and I will miss him terribly.
Michael Collins, Apollo 11 CMP, published
in the Washington Post, 12 September 2012
I am very saddened to learn of the passing of Neil Armstrong
today. Neil and I trained together as technical partners but
were also good friends who will always be connected through our
participation in the Apollo 11 mission. Whenever I look at the
moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I
realized that even though we were farther away from earth than
two humans had ever been, we were not alone. Virtually the
entire world took that memorable journey with us. I know I am
joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true
American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil
took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and
will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human
history. I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing
together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate
the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing. Regrettably, this is
not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit.
On behalf of the Aldrin family, we extend our deepest
condolences to Carol and the entire Armstrong family. I will
miss my friend Neil as I know our fellow citizens and people
around world will miss this foremost aviation and space pioneer.
Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 LMP
Neil Armstrong is a true national and international hero in the
classic sense. His intellect, dedication and skills made him
absolutely the best choice to be the first American and first
human to step foot on the Moon in 1969 as Commander of Apollo
. Quiet, thoughtful celebration of his life honors the man and
Armstrong conducted himself at the highest levels of
professionalism - quick to make good decisions in service to his
country, as a test pilot, and as an explorer in the best
traditions of Lewis and Clark. He often stated, however, that
our successes in these difficult arenas only come from the
magnificent efforts of hundreds of thousands of others.
One of my many favorite Armstrong memories from Apollo relates
to a spur of the moment decision he made late in his walk on the
Moon. We all trained to focus on collecting the greatest variety
of Moon rocks possible in the time available. But, having
already quickly collected one of the finest sets of lunar
samples, Neil thought the partially filled rock box needed
something more. He rapidly filled the box with a large amount of
the Moon's soil. This soil became one of the most important
samples ever returned from the Moon. Neil's 30 minutes of
sampling decisions at Tranquillity Base remain the most
productive half hour in lunar exploration.
Neil was a gifted speaker, historian and professor. He did not
give a large number of speeches or interviews, but all had been
extensively researched and delivered with remarkable clarity and
insight. Neil fascinated audiences with his clear articulation
of historical events and the relation of technology, aeronautics
and space to human activities in the past and future.
I had the great privilege to have known Neil as both a colleague
and friend. Teresa and I give our heartfelt condolences to the
extended Armstrong family and to his legion of friends,
colleagues, and others so profoundly influenced by the life of
Neil Armstrong. His historical insights, good nature and
extraordinary professionalism will be missed more than my words
Harrison H. Schmitt
Apollo 17 LMP
Neil was indeed the greatest. His humility and reluctance to
stand in the spotlight as the first human to set foot on the
moon are well known and respected. But mention flying airplanes,
and in particular flying the X-15, and he would light up, his
eyes would twinkle, and you could barely get a word in edgewise
– nor would you want to. Neil was a great American, a great test
pilot, a great engineer, but most importantly, a great friend.
We’ll miss him, but we’re so thankful we had the opportunity to
know and fly with him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Carol
and his family.
former X15 pilot and NASA astronaut
Neil loved his country and he loved the adventure of flight,
first in aviation and then in space travel. He excelled in a
very elite group of test pilots and astronauts. In his calling,
he was universally respected and admired -- as a pilot and as a
man. For the challenges of his time (and all time), this
soft-spoken, modest human being was the right man in the right
place. He gave us a role model for all of our endeavors. Thank
Apollo Flight Director