Neil Armstrong is surely among the best known figures of the 20th century. He was, after all, the first human being to set foot on our Moon. This achievement brought him international fame and adulation. But did it bring him happiness? Just as there’s a dark side of the Moon, it turns out that the experience of traveling there cast its pall over the life of Armstrong.
Before we find out more about some of the demons that haunted the man, let’s first learn about Neil Alden Armstrong’s background. He was born close to the Ohio city of Wapakoneta in 1930. His parents, Stephen and Viola, were of mixed Scots-Irish, Scottish and German descent. Armstrong was their first child, and he was later joined by sister June and brother Dean.
Stephen Armstrong was a local government auditor, and his work meant that in the first 14 years of Neil’s life the family moved home no fewer than 16 times. Amid all this to-ing and fro-ing, it’s said that the young Armstrong developed a fondness for flying from the tender age of two.
A visit to the Cleveland Air Races sparked this passion in the infant Armstrong. And his interest was reinforced when his father took him on his first flight at the age of six. This momentous event happened in Warren, Ohio, aboard a “Tin Goose,” as the Ford Trimotor was nicknamed.
Armstrong’s family finally settled down in 1944 back where they’d started in Wapakoneta. There, Armstrong went to Blume High School. He also started flying lessons and was flying solo by the time he was 16, at which point he hadn’t even earned his driver’s license. He also found time to become an Eagle Scout.
Armstrong went off to Purdue University in 1947 when he was 17, and unsurprisingly his chosen field was aeronautical engineering. In fact, he was offered a place at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well. Advice from an uncle seems to have influenced his decision to opt for Purdue.
This uncle pointed out to Armstrong that he’d receive a sound education 150 miles away at Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana, without the trouble of travelling more than 800 miles to Cambridge, Massachusetts to go to MIT. So Armstrong went to Purdue, with a special U.S. Navy scheme picking up the tab for his degree.
The scheme that Armstrong enrolled on meant that after two years of college, he was committed to a couple of years of flight practice and then 12 months flying in the U.S. Navy. Following this, Armstrong would return to college and finish his studies. His time in the Navy started early in 1949 when he arrived at Florida’s Pensacola Naval Air Station.
Armstrong made his first solo flight in September 1949 and his inaugural touchdown on a carrier, USS Cabot, in March 1950. By August of that year, he had officially qualified as a U.S. Navy pilot. And his progress continued with his maiden jet flight in a Grumman F9F Panther at the start of 1951. Then in June his squadron, VF-51, headed for Korean War duty aboard USS Essex.
The Korean War was essentially a Cold War conflict which that communist North Korea, backed by China and the Soviets, against South Korea and America and her allies. It had broken out in June 1950. And just over a year later, the 21-year-old Armstrong was about to go to war far from his homeland.
Armstrong started off with escort missions guarding spy planes, but he was soon flying on bombing sorties. In August 1951, as he flew his F9F Panther at low altitude to bomb a target, about 6 feet of one wing was ripped off by a booby-trap wire set up across a valley. Armstrong was able to stay in the air but had lost some control of his machine.
Armstrong now realized that he’d be unable to land his damaged plane safely on USS Essex and decided instead to eject. His plan was to do this above the sea where, hopefully, he’d be rescued by helicopter. But the wind took him inland away from the water. With impeccable timing, though, an old flight-school buddy showed up in a jeep and drove him to safety.
From January to March 1952, Armstrong completed close to 80 missions and surely proved that he was a resourceful and courageous young man. Following Korea, Armstrong became a reservist and he continued to fly. He also returned to Purdue to complete his studies. Back at college, he was involved in amateur theatrics and played in the Purdue All-American Marching Band.
Armstrong completed his degree in 1955. And the following year, another momentous life event came when he married his college sweetheart, Janet Shearon, in January 1956. They subsequently had three children together: Karen, Eric and Mark. Tragedy struck in the summer of 1961, however. Karen, the middle child, was contracted brain cancer. She died at the beginning of 1962, a couple of months short of her third birthday.
After graduating, Armstrong started life as a test pilot at Cleveland, Ohio’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, with his inaugural flight taking place in March 1955. In July he transferred to Southern California’s Edwards Air Force Base High-Speed Flight Station. And when 1956 rolled round, he had an opportunity to show the cool head that would later serve him well as an astronaut.
In March 1956 Armstrong piloted a modified four-engine Boeing B-29 Superfortress. However, during the plane’s ascent, one of the engines failed. The crew then fired off an experimental Skyrocket, which they needed to do in order for the plane to be able to land. As the rocket was released, though, one of the propellers came apart. Fragments flew into two of the other engines, compelling Armstrong to turn them off.
Armstrong was now left with just one functioning engine. Nevertheless, after a long, cautious descent he successfully landed the massive Superfortress. Armstrong flew in excess of 200 different planes as a test pilot, with similarly hair-raising incidents cropping up from time to time. His colleagues recognized him as an excellent engineer.
In 1962 NASA announced that opportunities were available for would-be astronauts. Armstrong applied and, despite getting his paperwork in well after the official deadline, was accepted. In fact, a friend named Dick Day had spotted his application and spirited it into the right in-tray. And in 1965 NASA named Armstrong as one of the back-up astronauts chosen for the Gemini 5 mission. This flight was designed as practice for a Moon landing.
Although Armstrong didn’t make it into space with Gemini 5, he was now selected as a first-choice astronaut for the Gemini 8 launch. He’d be the command astronaut and David R. Scott, another space-flight newbie, was named as pilot. The mission included a docking exercise in orbit with a crewless vessel, the first time this had been attempted. Powered by a Titan II rocket, Armstrong and Scott took off on March 16, 1966.
While the docking process went to plan, Armstrong and Scott’s ship then started to spin around. They detached from the other ship, but the problem only worsened. Armstrong now turned off the Orbit Attitude and Maneuvering System, which meant the astronauts were committed to re-entry and landing as soon as possible.
Once the decision to abandon the mission had been made, Gemini 8 returned to Earth successfully, splashing down off the coast of Japan on September 15. Some claimed that Armstrong might have taken the wrong course when the emergency occurred, but the general consensus was that the two astronauts were not at fault.
And it seems that Armstrong soon bounced back after his Saturn 8 disappointment. Good news came in 1967 when, along with 17 colleagues, he was chosen as one of the possible astronauts to fly to the Moon with the Apollo program. Armstrong now started training to pilot the lunar module down on to the surface of the Moon.
NASA built three vessels – Lunar Landing Training Vehicles (LLTV) – with which to practice the Moon landing. The astronauts subsequently dubbed these craft “flying bedsteads.” Armstrong was piloting one in May 1968 when the controls malfunctioned while he was at an altitude of around 100 feet. The vehicle now started to lurch alarmingly.
Armstrong decided it was time to eject, which he did without mishap apart from hurting his tongue. The LLTV plunged to the ground and the impact set it on fire. Later, technicians determined that if Armstrong had left it even a fraction of a second longer before ejecting, the parachute would have malfunctioned.
Armstrong seemed unfazed by this close shave, however, and was later to assert that the LLTV training had been essential to the success of the Moon missions. Armstrong was then chosen as a back-up commander for Apollo 8, which flew in December 1968. And while Apollo 8 circled the Moon, NASA offered Armstrong command of Apollo 11, the mission that would make the first Moon landing.
Naturally, Armstrong accepted. His crew would be Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon and Collins would remain in orbit aboard the ship they would all return to Earth in. NASA also decided that the first man to set foot on the Moon would be Armstrong.
On July 16, 1969, a Saturn V rocket blasted the three astronauts skywards. Armstrong’s wife Janet and his sons Eric and Mark were on a boat on the Banana River just by the Kennedy Space Station to witness the launch. It must have been an anxious moment for Janet, but fortunately things went off without a hitch. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were on their way to the Moon.
The space ship was blasted into orbit around the Earth and shortly afterwards, the engines fired again, propelling the three astronauts on course for the Moon. After three days of space travel, the mission had reached their destination by July 19 and went into orbit. They would now circle the Moon 30 times.
On July 20, Aldrin and Armstrong clambered into Eagle, the ship that would take them down to the surface of the Moon. They subsequently parted company with the orbiting vessel and headed downwards to the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong, piloting the lunar module, spotted a smooth patch of surface and steered the craft towards it, dodging a crater and bringing the landing module down safely.
The landing was a close-run thing, in fact. Indeed, when they touched down they had less than half-a-minute’s worth of fuel to spare. The tension of the touchdown was reflected in Armstrong’s heart rate, which had gone as high as 150 beats per minute. Nonetheless, they’d made it on to the surface of the Moon.
Nearly seven hours after the landing, Armstrong climbed out of the lunar module and planted his left boot on the Moon dust. He uttered the immortal words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong actually meant to say “a man,” but he can surely be forgiven for that minor slip-up.
As history records, Aldrin and Armstrong stayed on the Moon for more than 21 hours and then reunited with Collins, before returning safely to Earth eight days after they’d left the planet. Eighteen days of quarantine followed, after which Armstrong and the others could face jubilant hordes of well-wishers. There were tickertape parades in Chicago and New York as well as endless media and public appearances.
So you might think that everything would be rosy in Armstrong’s life after that pinnacle of achievement and the public adulation it elicited. But life wasn’t so easy for the first man on the Moon. Many of the difficulties Armstrong was to face in later years were only revealed in a biography written by James Hansen, however. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong was published in 2005.
In a 2019 interview with the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, Hansen said, “I’ve never met anybody quite like Neil. He had no ego and turned down so many opportunities to make money. Many of the astronauts who went to the Moon also had some religious or spiritual epiphany, but nothing changed in his approach to life.”
According to Hansen, Armstrong said, “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics.” Nonetheless, there was something gnawing away at his psyche. In fact, Armstrong developed an overwhelming fear that his two sons, Mark and Eric, would be kidnapped. He also became obsessed by the 1932 tragedy of Charles Lindberg, the flying ace.
Lindbergh’s son had been kidnapped and murdered. Mark Armstrong told Hansen, “I know there were threats made against us. Dad moved away from fame because he didn’t want what happened to the Lindbergh baby to happen to us.” In addition, problems also emerged in Armstrong’s relationship with his wife Janet.
And it seems that the death of their infant daughter Karen had cast a long shadow. After that gut-wrenching tragedy, Armstrong would never discuss the traumatic incident, meaning that Janet had to grieve alone. “I don’t remember her death ever being discussed at home,” Mark explained to Hansen. “My sister died on January 28, my parents’ wedding anniversary. They never celebrated it for that reason. It was a wound that never healed.”
In 1990 Armstrong and Janet separated, divorcing four years later after being married for almost four decades. The same year, Armstrong wed again, to Carol Knight. Armstrong now became anxious that his new marriage could drive a wedge between him and his sons, even though they were now in their 30s. He compensated by taking them to Scotland and Ireland to play golf.
Armstrong also avoided speaking about his Moon experience with his family and friends, just as he’d refused to speak about the death of his daughter. “I think he was concerned about being misrepresented,” Hansen said. “He had been a naval fighter pilot in the Korean War and a test pilot for years but felt the only thing people wanted to talk to him about was the Moon landing, which only took a year out of his life.”
“People expected Neil to be sort of demi-God or hero, but he was different from other astronauts,” Hansen told the Daily Mirror. “He wasn’t at all the gung-ho, macho fighter pilot type, those often depicted as the guys with the ‘right stuff’.” Armstrong seems to have been a complex and not always happy man. But his achievements were extraordinary. Neil Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82.