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Space Exploration

Neil Armstrong

Mare Tranquillitatis, moonquakes, navy scholarship, Rogers Commission, space shuttle Challenger disaster

Neil Armstrong, born in 1930, one of the first civilian United States astronauts and the first human to set foot on the moon. Armstrong was the commander of the first Apollo program mission to land on the moon—Apollo 11—in July 1969. He also flew aboard a Gemini program mission in 1966 and has been a U.S. Navy combat pilot, test pilot, professor, businessman, and presidential adviser. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and numerous international awards for his service on Apollo 11.

Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio. When he was 16 years old he began flying as a student pilot. He earned a navy scholarship and began attending Purdue University in 1947. In 1950 Armstrong began active duty with the navy for the Korean War. He flew fighter planes in Korea until 1952, when he returned to Purdue. Armstrong earned his B.S. degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955.

Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1955, then transferred later that same year to the NACA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He was a test pilot for many of the high-performance aircraft used to experiment with ideas for spacecraft. Armstrong left the Flight Research Center in 1962 to join the second group of U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut trainees.

This second group of trainees included the first two civilian astronaut candidates, Armstrong and test pilot Elliot See. (See unfortunately died in a plane crash while training to be commander of Gemini 9.) After completing initial training at NASA, Armstrong served as a backup to the Gemini 5 crew, then became the command pilot of Gemini 8; David R. Scott also flew aboard Gemini 8. The mission launched March 16, 1966, with the primary objective of docking with another spacecraft. Gemini 8 rendezvoused with a used segment of a launch vehicle called an Agena booster 298 km (185 mi) above the earth, and Armstrong successfully docked the two craft together 6 hours and 34 minutes into the mission. Roughly 30 minutes later, the paired spacecraft began to rotate unexpectedly and without any command from the astronauts. The rotation eventually reached about 60 revolutions per minute. The astronauts and the ground crew reacted rapidly and diagnosed a short circuit in the thruster rocket that controlled Gemini 8’s orientation. Armstrong and Scott had to use roughly 75 percent of Gemini 8's fuel to stabilize the craft, forcing the mission to end early with an emergency reentry during the seventh orbit.

Armstrong’s next assignments were on the backup crews for the Gemini 11 and Apollo 8 missions. In 1968 he was assigned the position of commander for the Apollo 11 mission, joined by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Allen Collins.

The mission objective for Apollo 11 was simply to take humans to the moon and return safely. Both NASA and the crew recognized the mission’s significance for all humans, and reflected this in several ways. Apollo 11’s mission patch is the only mission patch in NASA history to have no individual names on it. A plaque mounted on one leg of the lunar module, the part of the Apollo spacecraft that landed on the moon, bears a map of the earth, the signatures of President Richard Nixon and all three astronauts, and the inscription, “Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Apollo 11 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 16, 1969, and arrived in orbit around the moon on July 20. On the 14th orbit of the moon, following eight hours of preparation for the landing, the lunar module Eagle undocked from the command module Columbia and descended toward the Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquility). Armstrong began actively piloting the Eagle when the craft was about 1500 m (about 5000 ft) above the moon and 6 km (4 mi) east of the landing target, maneuvering to avoid boulders in the landing zone. The Eagle touched down on the moon’s surface very gently about three hours after separating from the Columbia. Armstrong and Aldrin prepared the Eagle for immediate liftoff in case of emergency, ate a meal, skipped a planned rest period, and began getting ready to go out onto the lunar surface.

At 10:56 pm Eastern Daylight Time Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon, pronouncing one of the most famous quotes of the 20th century: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin emerged less than 15 minutes later. Armstrong and Aldrin worked on the lunar surface operations within a radius of about 50 m (about 160 ft) of the lunar module for about 2 hours and 30 minutes. Their work included the collection of 22 kg (48 lbs) of rock samples and core tube samples and setting up a solar wind experiment, a seismometer to detect moonquakes, and a laser reflector. The laser reflector reflected pulses of laser light fired from the earth. This allowed scientists to make very accurate measurements of the distance between the earth and the moon. Eagle lifted off to rejoin Columbia after just 21 hours and 30 minutes on the lunar surface. The Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth on July 24, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 1300 km (about 810 mi) southeast of Hawaii. The crew spent a lengthy period in biological quarantine to ensure they had not brought any contaminants back to the earth, and then spent many months in technical debriefings at NASA and public appearances around the world.

In 1970 Armstrong became NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Advanced Research and Technology, in Washington, D.C. He left NASA in 1971 to join the faculty of the University of Cincinnati as a professor of engineering, a post he retained until 1979, when he went into private industry. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan appointed Armstrong to the National Commission on Space, a group charged with developing goals for the civilian space program into the 21st century. In 1986 President Reagan named him vice chairman of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster. He has served as a director of several corporations and hosted a 1991 television documentary on aviation entitled “First Flights.”

Contributors

Sullivan, Kathryn D., B.S., Ph.D.

Spesident and Chief Executive Officer, Ohio's Center of Science and Industry. Former Mission Specialist Astronaut, NASA.



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