As the Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle” approached the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, the millions of people following the mission on TV and radio could hear the voice of a NASA controller calling out “sixty seconds … thirty seconds.” This was the time before the fuel would run out and the mission would have to be aborted.
Neil Armstrong took his time landing as he coolly maneuvered over a field of boulders in search of a flat surface. With less than half a minute to spare, he and Buzz Aldrin became the first to land on the Moon.
NASA had scheduled a four hour rest period for the astronauts after touchdown but there was no way after traveling 250,000 miles that excitement and adrenalin would let them sleep. Armstrong soon took “one giant leap for mankind,” becoming the first human to set foot on another world.
Armstrong’s cool focus was seen shortly before his mission as he practiced for the lunar landing in a rocket-powered trainer that looked like a hovering bed frame with long legs and a pilot seat where the mattress should have been. Something went wrong with it and it crashed in flames seconds after Armstrong ejected . Later that day fellow astronauts found him back at his desk quietly taking care of paperwork.
Armstrong also had a brush with death on his 1966 Gemini 8 Earth orbital flight. A maneuvering rocket stuck open and his craft began spinning fast enough that it would have soon caused him and co-pilot David Scott to black out and die. Armstrong got the craft under control and made an emergency landing.
The word “hero” is bandied about too loosely these days so it’s right to reflect at the time of his death—a state he had cheated so often—that Neil Armstrong was the real thing.
First, he signed on to one of the most historic, audacious, visionary, and difficult projects ever attempted by human beings.
Second, he faced the greatest risks possible.
Third, his success was no accident. He was able to accomplish his mission because of his rationality, his cool mental focus, his discipline, and his training. He called upon the best within himself.
So here’s to Neil Armstrong, a true American hero!
When We Walked on the Moon, July 17, 2009, Edward Hudgins
Apollo 11 on Human Achievement Day , July 20, 2005, Edward Hudgins
American Heroism , November, 2001, William R Thomas
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.