Neil Armstrong: The reluctant hero

Author: By Rupert Cornwell

There have been only a dozen of them, two in each of six Apollo missions
between July 1969 and December 1972. Another dozen have orbited the Moon,
either in preparatory missions before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first
stepped on to its surface 40 years ago, as pilots of the command modules, or
as members of the crew of the crippled Apollo 13, whose safe return to Earth
was one of the miracles of the United States space programme.

To this day, these 24 men are the only human beings to have travelled outside
low Earth orbit ? and will remain so at least until 2015, according to the
scheme announced five years ago by President George W Bush for a permanent
manned lunar base to serve as launch site for the exploration of more
distant reaches of the solar system. Binding them is a single experience
that only they among the 6.7 billion denizens of our planet have tasted, and
that the rest of us, however enthralled by their feat, however awed by the
cosmos, will never quite be able to grasp.

The words of James Irwin, the eighth man to walk on the moon, capture it as
well as any. As Apollo 15 travelled deeper into space, the Earth “reminded
us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness …. As we got
farther and farther away … it shrank to the size of a marble, the most
beautiful you can imagine …. That beautiful warm, living object looked so
fragile, so delicate that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble
and fall apart.” Seeing this, he recalled before his death in 1991, “has
to change a man”.

And Irwin was changed. A year after his return to Earth in July 1971, he left
the air force and Nasa to set up a Christian organisation called High
Flight. Others were altered too. In different ways, almost all of them
discovered a greater spirituality. Many wrote books, some took up less
orthodox interests. Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 was the sixth man to walk on
the Moon, but his main claim to fame now is his belief in unidentified
flying objects, and his insistence that UFOs and visits to Earth by
extra-terrestrials have been systematically covered up by the US government.

Alan Bean, the fourth man on the Moon, became a painter of lunar scenes, as if
to try and prolong an experience that lasted just seven hours ? “our
time on the Moon ended much too quickly,” he says on his website. Many
of his 170 works are displayed in a special exhibit that opened last week at
the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Harrison Schmitt, the last man to step on to the Moon, took up the more
mundane calling of politics, as US senator for his home state of New Mexico.
But he too was shaped for ever by his time on the lunar surface in December
1972, and the vision of “the black sky, the brilliantly illuminated
slopes of the mountains … and our Earth is a big blue marble hanging over
one of the mountains”. Then there’s Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk
on the Moon, who after Apollo 11, struggled for years with alcoholism and
depression before regaining normality with his third wife Lois. Aldrin is
now perhaps the strongest advocate of all of them of a renewed US effort in
space.

Aldrin’s vicissitudes however are if anything the exception. Three of the
dozen have died: Pete Conrad in a motorcycle accident; Alan Shepard after a
long illness; and Irwin, who died of a heart attack. They and the nine
survivors largely coped very well with their life-changing journeys into
space. Their life expectancy and life patterns have not been so very
different from any comparable group of well educated and highly trained
white males, in outstanding physical condition ? apart perhaps from the
minor peculiarity that six of the 12 were of at least partial Scottish
ancestry.

All but one of them (Schmitt) had served in the US armed forces. They were
only chosen by Nasa after an exceptionally rigorous selection process in
which they underwent close pyschological as well as physical examination,
and from which only a handful of the hundreds of applicants would emerge.
The first groups of would-be astronauts were required by Nasa to have at
least a bachelor’s degree. By 1964, only those with a doctorate or
equivalent in engineering or a related discipline needed to apply. Shepard
was of a slightly earlier generation, the only man on the Moon to have
belonged to the “Mercury Seven” featured in Tom Wolfe’s The Right
Stuff. He would be 85 today, but the nine still alive are aged between 74
and 79 ? and their post-lunar lives have not been that extraordinary.

Several of them wrote books about their experience. Some set up space-related
consultancies, others joined corporate boards. But none crassly exploited
their celebrity. They were after all grown men aged between 36 and 41 ? with
the exception of Shepard ? when their moment in history arrived. They have
had failed marriages and famous affairs (for example the two-year liaison
between David Scott and the former ITN news reader Anna Ford), but such
lapses are not exactly unknown among humans who have not visited the Moon.

And none of them is more normal than Neil Armstrong, the most famous of them
all. He is one of the Scottish contingent ? back in 1972 he paid a
triumphant visit to Langholm in Dumfriesshire, traditional seat of the
Armstrong clan, to be made a freeman of the town. But that was one of
Armstrong’s rare public forays since Apollo 11’s epic voyage. As the first
man on the Moon, he was always going to face the fiercest ordeal by
celebrity. Indeed a fresh measure of it came last week when a cheque signed
by Armstrong on the eve of the Apollo 11 mission, was put up for auction.
The cheque itself was for $10.50, made out to Harold Collins, a Nasa
manager, to repay money Collins had lent to the astronaut, to be cashed if
the astronaut did not return from the Moon. Last week, 40 years later, it
fetched more than $27,000, a record for Armstrong memorabilia.

After the 1969 flight, Armstrong stayed on at Nasa for just two years. Wearied
by the unending attention and demands on his time, he left to teach
engineering at the University of Cincinnati in his native Ohio, not to
return to public life again.

He never wrote his memoirs. In 2005 he finally consented to an exhaustive
biography written by the historian James Hansen. Otherwise he gives no
interviews and will be largely shunning the 40th anniversary festivities.
Nasa’s official show tomorrow will be headlined by Aldrin. Armstrong is due
to deliver a lecture tonight at the Smithsonian Institution but, as an
official made clear, “he will not be doing interviews or photos”.

He hardly ever visits even his home town of Wapakoneta, nestled in the rich
agricultural lands of Western Ohio and where a museum named after him
honours his achievement. Instead he lives comfortably, quietly and very
happily on a farm half an hour’s drive north of Cincinnati, with his second
wife Carol.

The reclusiveness has not been to everyone’s taste. Hansen himself suggests
that Nasa, aware of the avalanche of publicity that would descend on the
first man to set foot on the lunar surface, deliberately made sure the
distinction would fall to the restrained, ever-in-control Armstrong, rather
than to the more volatile and emotional Aldrin. The choice, some would
complain, has backfired. A more outgoing and self-publicising figure, they
argue, might have kept Nasa more firmly in the spotlight, and speeded the
development of America’s space programme. But in a deeper sense, Armstrong
has been the perfect ambassador for the great Moon adventure that, over the
decades, has retained both an epic majesty and a simple human dignity.

Titans of Space: The pioneers who made the impossible possible

Heavenly creatures

Fruit flies went where no animal had gone before in 1947, on board a V2
rocket. Frogs, tortoises, rabbits, worms, bees, spiders, newts, mice, cats
and rats followed.

Muttniks

Strelka’s alive! And so is Belka. How the Russians rejoiced when two dogs
became the first animals to orbit the Earth and return in one piece in 1960.
Laika, the most famous of Russia’s 57 “Muttnik” missions, was the
first animal to orbit Earth in 1957 but died of stress a few hours after
lift-off.

Monkey magic

The Russians had dogs, the Americans monkeys (inset left). Albert II became
the first primate in space in 1949; Able and Miss Baker the first to survive
space flight in 1959. Ham the Chimp pulled levers in 1961, becoming the
first to be more than a passenger.

The X-Factor

Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 ? the first man to do so ?
test flying a rocket-powered plane called the Bell X-1. Neil Armstrong was
also an X project test pilot and Yeager became first commandant of the
astronaut training school in 1962.

First of the few

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space in 1961; Valentina Tereshkova the
first woman in space in 1963; Alexey Leonov the first to walk in space in
1965; James Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders the first to see the
dark side of the Moon in 1968, and Neil Armstrong …

The Right Stuff

The first seven US astronauts were chosen in 1959 under Project Mercury:
Scott Carpenter, Leroy Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan
Shepard and Deke Slayton (who was grounded due to a heart condition).

Moonwalkers

Twelve men stood on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

So near, and yet …

One astronaut had to remain in orbit 60 miles above the surface on each
moon mission. They were: Michael Collins, Dick Gordon, Jack Swigert, Fred
Haise, Stuart Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly and Ronald Evans.

Disasters

Apollo 13, with Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise, was a near
disaster in 1970 but it was saved thanks to an air filter made out of
cardboard and sticky-back plastic. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee
were all killed, when the Apollo 1 capsule caught fire during a test in
January 1967. Vladimir Komarov died when his parachute failed to open on
re-entry in 1967, one of several Russian disasters, many of which were kept
secret.

Ground Control

Charlie Duke went to the Moon but is best remembered as the voice of
Mission Control which guided Eagle down in July 1969. Deke Slayton chose
future astronauts, while Chris Kraft dreamt up Mission Control.

Andrew Johnson

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