Upon graduating from high school–confused and directionless–I considered taking on an undergraduate education in the US. I pursued the application process for as long as I could, before the financial impossibility of it all made me cease and desist. Among the majors I thought of making my own was aeronautical and aerospace engineering, and the school where I most wanted to study that subject was, wait for it: the University of Cincinnati.
Why UC? The answer was simple: long before I had figured out the meaning of the pernicious term ‘star faculty,’ I had become aware there was a professor at UC who did have a touch of the astronomical to him: Neil Armstrong. (I did not realize then, thanks to a less-than-thorough perusal of the school’s informational brochure, that Armstrong had only taught in the school till 1979 before resigning to take up other work.) Studying aerospace engineering–a natural choice of subject, surely, for the space-exploration-obsessed son of a pilot–with the first man to walk on the moon? Dreams were made of this.
It didn’t happen, of course, and I moved on to considerably less fantastic ventures. But that misguided and poorly informed attempt of mine to bring myself closer to my object of teenaged admiration should give you some indication of the kind of hold astronauts used to exert over schoolkids. The era of the space shuttle, of almost-routine spaceflight–disrupted by the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters–has diminished some of the halo that surrounded astronauts, but back then, only a dozen years or so after the Apollo program came to an end, they were still gods that walked the earth. And even then, Armstrong seemed a cut apart and above. And it wasn’t just that in a culture obsessed with priority, he had been the First on the Moon. Rather, it became clear to me as I read my way through the history of manned space-flight, that Armstrong was a bit of an exception even in his cohort.
More than anything else, Armstrong was a nerd. In the astronaut corps, he was more test pilot than regular fighter pilot jock, more engineer than explorer. He talked a little less, swaggered not a bit, and took his missions into space to be scientific work first and foremost. Crucially, he was a civilian, which helped ensure that NASA, unwilling to take sides in the inter-services rivalry between Air Force and Navy pilots, would pick him to be the commander of the first mission to land on the moon. Armstrong’s now-legendary reticence meant he did not write an autobiography so most of what I learned about him, I learned from his Apollo 11 crewmates. (Michael Collins‘ Carrying the Fire, one of the best books written on flying by a pilot, was particularly good in this regard.) This taciturnity ensured the first man on the moon maintained a studious, discreet and dignified persona befitting his lofty title.
As the outpouring of respect and affection on the announcement of his death showed, his retreat from an excessively public life ensured he would retain his Apollo 11 status in the public eye. Not for him the succumbing to the temptations of politics; I suspect he sensed cynicism and corruption lay along that path. His fellow Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, had a hard landing back on earth: alcoholism and marital troubles followed. Armstrong perhaps surmised the dangers of trying to replicate on earth the glories that belonged only in space, and like the good engineer he was, made a few calculations before settling on a course of action that would best preserve his sanity, equanimity, and reputation on his return to this planet.
It worked. Neil always knew when to light the fire, and when to glide to a soft landing. RIP.