Today is the birthday of one of Earth’s great explorers – Neil Armstrong. Armstrong is most famous for his “small step” on the moon, though he remained primarily an engineer and test pilot at heart, even after his moon landing. From his first flight on an old trimotor called the Tin Goose at age six to his final days in 2012, Armstrong’s love of flight was unparalleled. In fact, Armstrong so loved the adventure of flying that he qualified for his first pilot’s license at age 15, a year before he even applied for his driver’s license.
At 18, Armstrong won a Navy scholarship to Purdue, where he started his studies in aeronautical engineering. (His college career was interrupted by service in Korea, where he flew 78 combat missions.) It was during his time at Purdue that Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound, and while Armstrong was excited at the success of the flight, it was also a melancholy moment. For Armstrong, it looked like the end of opportunities for new adventures for pilots.
However, Armstrong quickly discovered that there were still new boundaries to be explored. After he left the Navy, he joined NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, as a test pilot. During his tenure at the NCA, he made flights in the legendary Bell X-1B, the X-15 and the X-20. But when NASA began accepting applications for the next group of astronauts for the Gemini program, Armstrong decided to turn his attention from flying around earth’s atmosphere to flying in a completely new medium – outer space. Armstrong would later admit that it was the thrill of flying in this undiscovered country that appealed to him rather than a visit to the moon.
Armstrong became the first civilian to travel in space, as the commander of Gemini 8, and part of the crew that managed the first successful docking of two spacecraft on that same flight. When NASA began the Apollo program, Armstrong was a natural fit for the group. He was named as the back-up commander for the Apollo 8 mission and won the commander’s seat for Apollo 11.
The Apollo 11 mission was nerve-racking for many reasons, though for Armstrong and Aldrin, the touchdown on the moon’s surface was probably the worst moment. The planned landing spot turned out to be the cracked edge of a crater, and with fuel running out and sensors blaring in alarm, Armstrong was forced to shut down the autopilot and take over control. Armstrong guided the ship away from the crater and found a relatively smooth patch of moon surface nearby where he deftly set down the lunar module. And then, in a remarkably calm voice, he uttered the first words ever broadcast from the moon’s surface: “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Unlike the other astronauts in the early programs, Armstrong chose to lead a quiet life away from the spotlight. He did the required ticker tape parade and visits with assorted officials and politicians, then took a position as the administrator of aeronautics for NASA. Armstrong quickly tired of the Washington scene and left NASA to become a professor at the University of Cincinnati. He rarely gave interviews and those he did agree to do were focused almost entirely on his space missions. He was careful never to discuss anything personal and made a point of always praising the thousands of people who made his mission success possible. Armstrong only stepped back into the glare of public life when then-President Obama announced an end to NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon.
And while Armstrong never took a sip of wine while hurtling between the earth and the moon (Aldrin snuck a communion wafer and wine aboard Apollo 11 and took communion during the radio blackout), it still seems appropriate to offer a nod and a toast to this quietly exceptional man. For those who are feeling brave, there’s always the infamous Tang, the sort-of orange juice of the space program, although we would recommend something more like a Rocket Man or a Bailey’s Comet. (Maybe enjoyed while observing the Moon’s Beer Crater with your favorite telescope.)