Life and Life Only

The Right Stuff: Neil Armstrong R.I.P. 1930 – 2012

He was shy, a geeky engineer type who had none of the charisma of, say, John Glenn, the all American golden boy at one end of the spectrum, or Chuck Yeager, the legendary cowboyesque fighter pilot at the other.

Yet, Neil Armstrong was capable, committed to precision, with nerves of ice when the situation demanded it.

Here is how Tom Wolfe described Armstrong in his 1979 classic, “The Right Stuff.” (a book that is, by the way, just as astonishingly good and relevant as when it was published).

[Armstrong’s facial expression] “hardly ever changed. You’d ask him a question, and he would just stare at you with those pale-blue eyes of his, and you’d start to ask the question again, figuring he hadn’t understood, and — click — out of his mouth would come forth a sequence of long, quiet, perfectly formed, precisely thought-out sentences, full of anisotropic functions and multiple-encounter trajectories . . . It was as if his hesitations were just data punch-in intervals for his computer.”

And in the 1999 Washington Post Magazine profile of Armstrong, journalist Kathy Sawyer writes this of that day in the summer of 1969 when Neil Armstrong entered history:

….At touchdown, NASA measured Armstrong’s pulse at 150 beats per minute. You can hear the emotion in the recording of the Apollo commander’s words of confirmation: “Houston, uh . . .”

Here he paused, staring out through his visor at the deceptively benign-looking moonscape. The quaver in his voice was still discernible when he continued, identifying the landing spot in a way that he believed would evoke the tradition of human explorers over the centuries:

“Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

This was 4:17:42 p.m. EDT.

The notion of a small step compared with a great leap seemed natural, and Neil Armstrong thought up the line on his own during the 6 1/2 hours between touchdown and stepping out, he said later. He was aware that the occasion called for something beyond engineer-speak. On the ground, his mother told reporters he wanted to say something that included everybody in the world.

What he meant to say was: “That’s one small step for a man,” but either he misspoke in his excitement or the spotty transmission eliminated the article — “We’ll never know,” he has said cryptically — and it came out: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The momentous hop from the ladder to the surface happened in the waning minutes of prime time — 10:56 p.m. EDT, Sunday, July 20, 1969, with grainy black-and-white TV images beamed to the world live from the moon’s surface. Armstrong and Aldrin spent less than 21/2 hours outside their moon ship, setting up experiments, collecting rocks, taking pictures. They never ventured more than about 150 feet from the lander, but Armstrong startled some members of the ground team when he bounded out of the camera’s field of view to examine an interesting crater.

It was like being on a flood-lit sandlot baseball field at night, he would later tell fellow engineers. You’re standing in this dazzling light at ground level, but above you is a stark black sky. Earth appears four times as big as the moon does from Earth, and the oceans and continents — even white clouds — are visible.

Armstrong felt elated when that first step reassured him that “we weren’t going to sink into the surface,” he said. His most surprising visual impression was the eerie play of color and light. At lunar dawn, the airless moonscape seemed drained of color, but as the sun rose, the moving light was reflected in bright tan. Surprisingly, though, the actual color of the rock when viewed close up was dark or charcoal brown. The horizon, close by, was jagged and outlined with knife-edge sharpness against the black abyss.

Even the laconic pilot/engineer felt the tingle of the moment. As they stood in the flood of light, Armstrong leaned toward Aldrin, clapped his gloved hand on his crew mate’s shoulder and said, “Isn’t it fun?”


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