Neil Armstrong? First and last, a pilot

Colby Cosh on Armstrong's record of outstanding sanity in the face of an emergency

Mission accomplished

NASA/Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Neil Armstrong, who died after heart surgery Aug. 25 at age 82, was known for the restraint with which he used his fame. Armstrong, one of only two civilians amongst the 12 men who walked on the moon, never tried to boost his NASA salary, or his later income from business and teaching, by appearing in vacuum-cleaner ads or peddling a tell-all book. His near-reclusiveness has been seen as a manifestation of old-school Midwestern virtue, and it certainly is that. But it also reflected his engineer’s soul. Armstrong was the ultimate in right-angled rationalists—an almost monastically mission-oriented person in a ’60s NASA environment full of short-fused fighter-jock egos.

It’s hard to get a straight answer to the question of why Neil Armstrong was picked to be first on the moon. It is clear that Buzz Aldrin originally expected to exit first, and that he lobbied behind the scenes for the distinction. That wasn’t Armstrong’s style. A few years ago he told biographer James Hansen: “In my mind the important thing was that we got four aluminum legs safely down on the surface of the moon while we were still inside the craft. To me, there wasn’t a lot of difference between having 10 feet of aluminum leg between the bottom of the spacecraft in which we were standing and the surface of the moon and having one inch of neoprene rubber or plastic on the bottom of our boots touching the lunar surface.”

No, Armstrong did not see himself as a 20th-century Columbus. He was, first and last, a pilot; once he set the lunar module down on the Sea of Tranquility, everything else was trivia. The fact is the lunar landing probably was not his most impressive achievement. Such a thing would dominate anyone’s obituary, but it has led the public to forget his earlier experience aboard Gemini 8—the first movement in a sonata of NASA crises, later to be overshadowed by the Apollo 1 fire of 1967 and the 1970 rescue of Apollo 13.

On March 16, 1966, Armstrong and future Apollo 15 moonwalker David R. Scott became the first human beings to dock an orbiting spacecraft with an independently launched satellite, the Agena. (As proofs-of-concept go, this one has been more important to spaceflight than the moon landings.) The procedure proved surprisingly unchallenging; when the Gemini capsule nosed into place, Armstrong blurted out, “It’s really a smoothie!” The Gemini-Agena combo—mankind’s first “space station”—moved out of radio contact with mission control 28 minutes later. When it came back in range after another 15, Armstrong’s first words were, “We have serious problems here.” A wiring problem had left one of the attitude thrusters on Gemini stuck in the “on” position—firing continuously and causing an increasing left roll. Unsure what was causing the problem, Armstrong made the snap decision to separate from the Agena. But the problem was on their side, and without the Agena’s inertia, the Gemini craft began to spin even faster.

Press accounts said the pair were spinning at about one revolution per second. Senior mission controller Chris Kraft has since noted that their peak rotation was actually 550 degrees a second. Only a trained test pilot could make good decisions while whirling around in freefall 90 times a minute—and Armstrong justified the use of test pilots in space for all time by using Gemini’s re-entry thrusters to dampen the roll and save himself and Scott. By rule, the use of those thrusters meant the mission had to be aborted early. Armstrong and Scott suffered tense hours as they waited to see if they would splash down short of their Pacific landing zone, on the soil of Communist China.

Armstrong was rueful about the abort, which cost Scott the chance to make a spacewalk and cut short the experiment with Agena. But NASA was impressed. One of the agency’s main concerns before the moon missions was that astronauts trying to set down the lunar module would refuse to abort the landing, even if they ran too short on fuel to leave the moon. Armstrong, alone among astronauts of the time, had established a record of outstanding sanity in the face of an emergency. He would probably like to be remembered for that—for making the right choice, a pilot’s choice—at least as much as for the trail he left in the dust of the moon.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.