Neil Armstrong Engineer and Astronaut
First Man on Moon, Armstrong, Discusses Space Legacy
Thursday, October 3, 2002
Former astronaut Neil Armstrong speaks at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday. Armstrong, the first man on the moon, said his feat doesn’t even rank among the top 10 engineering achievements of the 20th century.
Steve Deslich/Knight Ridder Tribune, BY PATRICK T. REARDON
For most Americans, Neil Armstrong is an enigma.
In the 33 years since he became the first human to walk on the moon, Armstrong has done nothing to capitalize on his fame and everything in his power to diminish it. He has declined all but a handful of interview requests. And, in those rare instances when he has agreed to be questioned, his answers have been noteworthy for their blandness and lack of emotional oomph.
But there was a moment a year ago during a seven-hour interview with two historians at the Johnson Space Center in Houston — a transcript of which has recently been made available on the Internet — when Armstrong dropped his matter-of-fact tone and grew downright poetic.
d used the word “fragile” in describing the Earth as seen from space.
“And I think everybody shares that observation. And I don’t know why you have that impression, but it’s so small, it’s very colorful — you know, you see an ocean and gaseous layer, a little bit, just a tiny bit, of atmosphere around it. And, compared with all the other celestial objects — which, in many cases, are much more massive, more terrifying — it looks like it couldn’t put up a very good defense against a celestial onslaught.”
It’s a touching comment, evocative, deeply human in its tone of protectiveness and affection — and the antithesis of the engineer-speak that routinely issues from Armstrong’s mouth.
Yet, it also hints at the reason for his usual tight-lipped answers and his abhorrence of fame in a celebrity-addicted age — a different sort of protectiveness, a desire to guard the first moon landing from the rot of triviality and to put his role in the achievement in proper perspective.
“He gave a dignity that an accomplishment of that magnitude deserved,” says Duane Ross, who oversees the oral history project under which the Johnson Space Center interview took place last year.
“He didn’t want to market the moon,” says Douglas Brinkley who, with fellow historian Stephen Ambrose, conducted the interview.
Indeed, Brinkley argues that Armstrong’s shunning of the spotlight shows that he was “the absolute right guy” to take the first moon walk. “This is an accomplishment that needs to be treasured and held in such esteem,” Brinkley says, “because anything that would taint it with a Madison Avenue glint would be a bad statement about our country.”
When Armstrong sat down at the Johnson Space Center on Sept. 19, 2001, for the interview with Brinkley and Ambrose, he was dressed in a checkered sport coat, a blue Oxford shirt and a dark blue necktie with “a galaxy of yellow stars on it,” Brinkley recalls.
“He’s perfectly fit and trim, with piercing blue eyes — [and, although balding,] still exudes a kind of boyish demeanor, has an All-American look to him.”
Like most Americans, the two historians, who had been asked by the space center to conduct the interview, were excited simply to be in the same room with the lunar pioneer.
Ambrose, known for his accounts highlighting the heroics of American soldiers in World War II, “was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to Armstrong,” says his son and assistant, Hugh. (Ambrose, who is undergoing an aggressive treatment for lung cancer, was unavailable to be interviewed.)
The goal of the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, begun in 1996, is to record the recollections of engineers, scientists, technicians, managers, astronauts, and other NASA employees and contractors about the space agency’s early programs.
And it was a coup for the project when Armstrong agreed to participate. But the interview was nearly canceled at the last minute because of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
U.S. airports reopened in time for Armstrong to fly from Cincinnati, but the space center remained on high security.
In the transcript of the official interview, posted Sept. 2 by NASA at www.jsc.nasa.gov/ history/oral_histories/a-b.htm, Armstrong mentioned the attacks briefly — once, to acknowledge the need to carry on despite the shock, and, another time, to praise the crew and passengers on the hijacked United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania farm field rather than into a U.S. building.
And then there’s Armstrong’s modesty, a deep personality trait. The word most used to describe Armstrong by those who have interviewed him is “self-deprecating.”
“Neil feels that all of the attention [on him] is misplaced,” says Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (Viking Penguin), who interviewed Armstrong for more than two hours in 1988 for his book.
“We focus on the guys who [walked on the moon] because it’s the most dramatic story,” Chaikin says. “But the real legacy of Apollo is what those 400,000 people [working for and with NASA] accomplished over a decade.”
For Armstrong, those workers are the true heroes.