ASTRONAUTS do not like to be called heroes
“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”
Armstrong was known as the “Ice Commander”
Aug 25th 2012, 20:38 by T.C.
But it never works. For Neil Armstrong, who commanded Apollo 11, the mission that landed men on the moon on July 20th 1969, the struggle against heroism seemed particularly futile. The achievement of his crew, relayed live on television, held the entire planet spellbound. On their return to Earth, the astronauts were mobbed. Presidents, prime ministers and kings jostled to be seen with them. Schools, buildings and roads were named after them. Medals were showered upon them. A whirlwind post-flight tour took them to 25 countries in 35 days.
As the first man to walk on another world, Armstrong received the lion’s share of the adulation. All the while, he quietly insisted that the popular image of the hard-charging astronaut braving mortal danger the way other men might brave a trip to the dentist was exaggerated. “For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger,” he told one interviewer before his fateful flight. Done properly, he opined, spaceflight ought to be no more dangerous than mixing a milkshake.
Indeed, the popular image of the “right stuff” possessed by the astronaut corps—the bravery, the competitiveness, the swaggering machismo—was never the full story. The symbol of the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, where Armstrong spent years testing military jets, is a slide rule over a stylised fighter jet. In an address to America’s National Press Club in 2000, Armstrong offered the following self-portrait: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”
He had an engineer’s reserve, mixed with a natural shyness. Even among the other astronauts, not renowned for their excitability, Armstrong was known as the “Ice Commander”. Mike Collins, one of Armstrong’s crew-mates on the historic moon mission, liked his commander but mused that “Neil never transmits anything but the surface layer, and that only sparingly.” In one famous incident, Armstrong lost control of an unwieldy contraption nicknamed the “Flying Bedstead” that was designed to help astronauts train for the lunar landing. Ejecting only seconds before his craft hit the ground and exploded, Armstrong dusted himself off and coolly went back to his office for the rest of the day, presumably to finish up some paperwork.
That unflappability served him well during the lunar landing. The original landing area turned out to be full of large boulders, and so Armstrong had to take control from his spacecraft’s primitive computer and skim across the lunar surface by hand, looking for somewhere suitable to set down. By the time he found his spot, there was only 25 seconds of fuel left in the tanks.
It served him well back on Earth, too. The astronauts knew from the experiences of their predecessors on the Mercury and Gemini flights that their trip would transform them into celebrities. But theirs was the biggest achivement yet, and none were prepared for the adulation that awaited them. Puzzlingly for the pragmatic spacemen, their trip to the moon seemed to have elevated them to the status of oracles, and people pressed them for their thoughts on everything from religion to the future of the human species and the chances for world peace.
Unlike some of his fellow astronauts (two of whom became senators), Armstrong chose a comparatively quiet retirement, teaching engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He returned to NASA twice, both times to serve on boards of enquiry, the first into the near-disaster of Apollo 13, and the second into the disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. He spent his final years on his farm in rural Ohio, flying gliders in his spare time (it was, said the supposedly emotionless engineer, the closest humans could come to being birds).
For all mankind
Half a century after the event, with the deaths of many of its participants, the Apollo project is beginning to fade from living memory and pass into the history books. It was one of the mightiest achievements of the potent combination of big government and big science; in many ways the apotheosis of the post-war American political consensus. Viewed from an age in which America’s government aspires to smallness and in which grand projects are regarded with suspicion, it seems more alien with every passing year.
Nevertheless, it is one of the few events of the 20th century that stands any chance of being widely remembered in the 30th. Despite its origins in Cold War paranoia and nationalist rivalry, Mike Collins recalls in interviews a brief moment of global unity: “People, instead of saying ‘you Americans did it’, they said ‘we—people—did it’. I thought that was a wonderful thing. Ephemeral, but wonderful.”
Perhaps the most unexpected consequence of the moon flights was a transformation of attitudes towards Earth itself. Space was indeed beautiful, but it was beauty of a severe, geometrical sort. Planets and stars swept through the cosmos in obedience to Isaac Newton’s mathematical clockwork, a spectacle more likely to inspire awe than love. Earth was a magnificent contrast, a jewel hung in utter darkness, an exuberant riot of chaos and life in a haunting, abyssal emptiness. The sight had a profound effect on the astronauts, and photos of the whole Earth, which had never been seen before, nourished the nascent green movement.
As for the man himself, his reserve was not limitless. One of the most famous photos of Armstrong shows the Ice Commander in the Lunar Module after he and Buzz Aldrin had completed their historic walk on the moon’s surface. He is dressed in his space-suit, sports a three-day beard and is clearly exhausted. And on his face is plastered a grin of purest exhilaration.
(Picture credit: NASA)