Neil Armstrong, 1st person to walk on the moon, dies at 82

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Dec 17, 2012

Neil Armstrong, the man whose name became synonymous with the word "astronaut" when he was crowned a national hero as the first human ever to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, died Saturday in the Cincinnati area. He was 82.

Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on Aug. 5, 1930, Armstrong took an interest in flight at an early age, and at 17 attended Purdue University to study aerospace engineering. In 1949, he joined the United States Navy, where he qualified as a Naval Aviator. He joined Air Squadron 51 and saw action in the Korean War. On Sept. 3, 1951, during a reconnaissance mission, his F9F Panther was hit by anti-aircraft fire, forcing him to eject. He landed safely and went on to fly a total of 78 missions in Korea before returning to America and earning his bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering from Purdue in 1955, followed by a master of science in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California in 1970.

In the 1950s, Armstrong became a test pilot, flying in more than 200 different aircraft for the United States government throughout his career. In 1958, he joined NASA as part of the "Man In Space Soonest" program, and in 1962 he was selected as one of the "New Nine," the second group of astronauts (after the "Mercury 7") NASA presented to the public for the Gemini program. Because his Navy service was over, he would become the first American civilian ever to fly in space.

Though Apollo 11 would make him a legend, Armstrong's first space mission came three years earlier aboard Gemini 8, and it nearly ended in tragedy. The mission's objective was to dock the Gemini capsule with NASA's unmanned Agena target craft in Earth orbit. Armstrong and his crewmate, David R. Scott, successfully docked with the Agena, but then the Gemini capsule malfunctioned, causing it to roll rapidly. The crew was forced to abort the remainder of the mission and conduct an emergency landing, a first for a NASA flight.

Then came Apollo 11.

Armstrong was selected to command the mission in December of 1968. In the spring of 1969, NASA administrators decided that, as commander, he would also be the first of the crew to set foot on the lunar surface. Today, the mission is most remembered for Armstrong's first step off the lunar module ladder and his famous words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" (though he maintained the quote should read "a man"). But for Armstrong, the most memorable part of the mission would always be the landing.

While command module pilot Michael Collins orbited above, Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin began the nine-mile descent to the Eagle's designated landing area, but the overloaded onboard computer couldn't keep up with all the commands it was intended to follow, and the craft overshot its mark. With craters and boulders all around, Armstrong was forced to manually find a place to set the module safely down. He later called the final 500 feet of the descent "by far the most difficult and challenging part" of the mission, and even said he enjoyed piloting more than he did walking on the moon.

"Pilots take no particular joy in walking," he said. "Pilots like flying."

After Apollo 11, Armstrong and Aldrin were greeted as instant celebrities back on Earth, the subject of ticker-tape parades and state dinners and a 28-city tour. But though Aldrin embraced his fame, Armstrong was never comfortable in the spotlight.

"We were not naive, but we could not have guessed what the volume and intensity of public interest would turn out to be," he said.

Apollo 11 would be Armstrong's final spaceflight. He left NASA in 1971 and taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati until 1979. He was also a successful investor and businessman throughout his post-astronaut life, but eventually returned to NASA to lend a hand in a time of crisis, serving as vice-chairman of the commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

Though he left space behind at the age of 38, Armstrong spent the rest of his life advocating for the continued prominence of American spaceflight. Just last year, he appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to lament the state of NASA and call for greater support of the agency.

"For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable," he said. "A lead, however earnestly and expensively won, once lost, is nearly impossible to regain."

Armstrong is survived by his wife, Carol, and sons Mark and Eric. He was preceded in death by his daughter (with his first wife, Janet) Karen in 1962. Upon hearing of his death, Buzz Aldrin, who walked beside Armstrong on the moon, sent out condolences via Twitter.

(Via Washington Post)

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