Remembering Neil Armstrong...
August 26, 2012
· Posted by Greg Lloyd
"I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer -- born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow." - Neil Armstrong, The Engineered Century. I was sad to hear about the death of Neil Armstrong on 25 August 2012. I'll always remember meeting Armstrong at an event for high school science students in the spring of 1966. He'll be remembered forever as the first person to set foot on the Moon on 29 July 1969. He coolly navigated the lunar lander to the surface despite computer alarms, avoiding rocks at the planned site, and landing with gauges showing about 20 seconds of fuel left. But that wasn't his only close call as an astronaut. In March 1966 Armstrong and David Scott successfully returned Gemini VIII to earth after a runaway thruster spun the Gemini and attached Agena target vehicle to a roll rate of about 300 degrees per second, making chances of recovery "very remote".
Armstrong and Scott were scheduled for a brief question and answer session at the Pennsylvania state science museum auditorium in Harrisburg - squeezed between astronaut meet and greet events for the Governor and state legislators a few blocks away. A handful of high school students and their science teachers from local schools were invited to the event on short notice. I was lucky to be selected by my high school physics teacher, who knew I was a space nut - before geek came into general use. There were a few hundred students, teachers, and a small number of reporters and photographers in the auditorium for the afternoon event.
A state official welcomed Armstrong and Scott, invited them to tell us about the Gemini VII mission, and cautioned that they'd only have a few minutes for questions before they had to move on to the next event. Armstrong and Scott thanked everyone for showing up on short notice, made a few brief remarks on the mission, and opened the floor for questions.
All hands went up. A local science teacher was the first person recognized - not Mr. Sault my physics teacher. He asked how they as astronauts would justify the time and treasure that the US spent on the space program. His question was a long, slow, philosophical speech. All the kids groaned and mumbled. Armstrong diplomatically summarized NASA's mission and suggested that although as a citizen he enthusiastically supported NASA's mission, astronauts executed policy, but didn't make it.
The next question went to the pudgy kid with glasses and camera jumping up and down in the tenth row - me. Maybe it seemed like a safe bet. Before the talk I reviewed everything I could read and remember about the mission and had my question prepared. Most of us in the room remembered when the spin began at about 4pm the afternoon of the 19 March 1966 launch since the launch and significant events like the Agena docking were covered on live TV, and of course we watched. So: 1) What in your training and experience enabled you to diagnose and recover so quickly? 2) How far along was the mission debrief and investigation? 3) Could you share any insights on the thruster issue and changes to avoid similar problems?
I got a smile and a nod from Neil. Armstrong and Scott ran out the short time remaining on the clock with a crisp summary and discussion on the thruster problem, test pilot skills, and new training procedures, which they enjoyed as much as we did. When Armstrong and Aldrin ran into issues on Apollo descent and landing I felt confident it would work out.
On Saturday 25 Aug his family posted: "Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend. Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job."
“While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” - The family of Neil A. Armstrong, 25 Aug 2012
I hope this sky isn't cloudy, since I plan to spend some time looking at the moon. And winking.
A few links and references on the life and times of Neil Armstrong, including several that aren't so common. I strongly recommend his NASA Oral History project interview.
The Engineered Century - Neil Armstrong, National Academy of Engineering, Spring 2000, The Bridge, National Academy of Engineering. Edited version of remarks to the National Press Club, 20 Feb 2000
Neil A. Armstrong (1930 - 2012) - From the family of Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong | 1930 - 2012: Made 'Giant Leap' as First Man to Step on Moon - John Noble Witford's New York Times obituary, 25 Aug 2012
Gemini VIII Mission Summary - NASA Apollo Lunar Surface Journal
Apollo XI Mission Summary - NASA Apollo Lunar Surface Journal
Lunar Landing Guidance Equations - Part of the source code for the Lunar Module's (LM) Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), for Apollo 11. From the Virtual AGC and AGS emulation project
Oral History Transcript Neil A. Armstrong, NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. Interview by Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose and Dr. Douglas Brinkley, Houston, Texas - 19 Sep 2001 (pdf 106pp)
Catalog of NASA Oral History Collections - NASA Headquarters and Field Centers