March 31, 2009
Got time to kill this year? Consider blunting your teeth on the 648-page tome First Man, the 2005 authorized biography of Neil Armstrong, by James R. Hansen. Exhaustively researched doesn’t quite do justice to the book, which starts off excavating Armstrong’s roots back to 13th century Scotland, where his father Stephen’s lineage blurs into folklore amid the ruffian Armstrong clan; and to the German province of Westphalia, ancestral home of his mother Viola Engel’s family. Some people I’ve spoken to preferred to start the book at the X-15 program.
I’ve decided to take on the whole story because, hey, this was the first guy to walk on the moon. And, according to Hansen, Armstrong had no grand plans for himself. He just wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, and decided somewhere along the way that a pilot’s license might make sense toward that.
It’s worth noting that we’re in the middle of the 40th anniversary of Apollo’s busiest and most fruitful year. In less than 11 months, from December 21, 1968 to November 14, 1969, NASA launched the Saturn V, their 363-foot-tall moon rocket, five times. Two flights orbited the moon (Apollo 8 and 10); one took the lunar lander for a spin in Earth orbit (Apollo 9); and two made lunar landings (Apollo 11 and 12). Apollos 13 through 17 would come at a far less feverish pace.
At page 114 I’ve just concluded Armstrong’s 78 combat missions in Korea. What strikes me more than any gee-whiz aspect of his life is his uncanny talent for cheating the Grim Reaper. When Dr. Vernon Noble appeared at the Wapakoneta farmhouse where Viola gave birth to Neil on August 5, 1930, the doctor noted, “Well, I cannot save the child, but we will try to save the mother.” When he was eight years old, Armstrong fell 15 feet from a silver maple and, with his younger sister June watching in awe, landed flat on his back. ” ‘Never to trust a dead limb’ was young Neil’s takeaway,” writes Hansen. At age 16 Armstrong gave first aid to two men who nosed in on approach to Wapakoneta’s airport after hitting power lines. One of the men died, not quite in Armstrong’s arms. But the kid was unfazed. “I never felt he was affected by it in any way,” said his sister.
Just weeks after his 21st birthday, while making a bomb run on North Korean ground targets, a cable set up by the enemy as a booby trap for low-flying aircraft tore six feet off the right wing of his F9F Panther. He was able to get the airplane back to altitude, then back to the South Korean coast before ejecting and settling down into some rice paddies. He later learned that the explosions he heard offshore were the North Koreans mining the bay where he would have come down without the right wind. A couple weeks later, he was below decks on the carrier U.S.S. Essex when a damaged F2H Banshee bounced high during a landing attempt and smashed into a line of aircraft being moved toward the bow. In the horrible fire that ensued, four men died and many were severely burned, some of them jumping overboard. As the youngest member of his squadron, Armstrong would have been parking those airplanes and been caught right in the fire. Instead, he’d been assigned as the squadron duty officer for the day, which entailed staying below deck in the ready room. He never even saw the disaster topside, or took part in the firefighting.
I haven’t even gotten to the more harrowing scrapes with death, such as the time he looked out the window of his X-15 expecting to see Rogers Dry Lake and saw the Rose Bowl in Pasadena; or the frightening Gemini 8 mission he commanded, in which a stuck thruster during orbit sent his capsule cartwheeling wildly out of control at one revolution per second, hurling him and David Scott around like ragdolls in a dryer; or his ejection with hardly a split second to spare during a flight in a machine called the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, affectionately dubbed the “flying bedstead” (above).
Yes, Armstrong’s place in history is that classic crossroads of preparation, ambition, and one heck of a lot of lu— well, they may make up a better word for it someday, but for lack of one now, luck.