Neil Armstrong

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Charles Murray and his wife wrote a book about the Apollo program and learned some little-known things about Neil Armstrong:

One of the many backstories we learned was about the ongoing struggle between the Flight Operations people who ran Mission Control and Deke Slayton, who managed the astronauts. Senior staff in Flight Operations were of the opinion that some astronauts were better than others, and wanted flight assignments to be made accordingly. Slayton believed just as strongly in a rotation system. Once assignments to the rotation had been made, he was adamantly opposed to making substitutions—it would be insulting to the crew that was displaced and destroy astronaut morale.

As a compromise, the rotation for the Apollo flights was set up so that command of the first lunar landing was likely to go to Jim McDivitt or Frank Borman, both of whom were especially esteemed by everyone in the Apollo program. But then came the fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1, which took one crew out of the sequence. Then Apollo 8, the first circumnavigation of the moon, was inserted at a new place in the schedule. And so it came to be that Apollo 11 was the mission that got the first lunar landing and that Neil Armstrong, assigned to Apollo 11 years earlier, was the commander.

I once raised this issue with Jerry Bostick, who ran the Flight Dynamics branch during Apollo—the guys in Mission Control who were responsible for getting the spacecraft from point A to point B. Yes, Jerry acknowledged, it was the luck of the draw. But it was a lucky draw for the Apollo program, he thought.

Jerry began to reminisce about Gemini 8, Neil Armstrong’s previous space flight. Armstrong and his copilot, David Scott, had rendezvoused and docked with an Agena rocket as part of the rehearsal for techniques that would have to be used on the lunar mission. The combined vehicles had started to roll, so they undocked. But once it was on its own, the Gemini spacecraft started to roll even faster. Unbeknownst to the crew, one of the Gemini’s thrusters had locked on. The roll increased to one revolution per second.

I had known all this, but hadn’t thought much about it. And if you watch NASA’s version on You Tube, it is all made to sound as if the roll was a brief problem, never rising to the level of a crisis.

Jerry Bostick mused, “So there’s Neil, calmly toggling these little banana switches, moving through the alternatives, until he figures it out.” He shook his head in wonderment. “I’m not sure that any of our other pilots, and we had some great ones, could have analyzed the situation and solved it as quickly as he did.” I could forget about trying to make anything of Neil not being the first choice for the lunar landing.

Armstrong displayed the same sang froid during Apollo 11, when the Eagle was heading toward a field of boulders and, with a fuel tank within seconds of empty, Armstrong flew the spacecraft to a safe landing spot. And then, back home and after the obligatory ticker-tape parades were completed, he never did anything to cash in on his fame, living out his life quietly, a good man.

On May 6, 1968, more than a year before his moon landing, Neil Armstrong had a narrow escape in the lunar landing research vehicle (LLRV) at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston:

On a simulated lunar descent, leaking propellant caused a total failure of his flight controls and forced an ejection. His only injury was a hard tongue bite.

In his Armstrong biography First Man, author James Hansen recounts how astronaut Alan Bean saw Armstrong that afternoon at his desk in the astronaut office. Bean then heard colleagues in the hall talking about the accident, and asked them, “When did this happen?” About an hour ago, they replied.

Bean returned to Armstrong and said, “I just heard the funniest story!”

Armstrong said, “What?”

“I heard that you bailed out of the LLTV an hour ago.”

“Yeah, I did,” replied Armstrong. “I lost control and had to bail out of the darn thing.”

“I can’t think of another person,” Bean recalls, “let alone another astronaut, who would have just gone back to his office after ejecting a fraction of a second before getting killed.”


  1. Ross says:

    Okay, okay, it’s been a few days now. Can we hear now about what, exactly, were the “complications” in or after Armstrong’s heart surgery? Infection, botched operation, what?

    I can understand, if that were the case, that no one would be eager to ‘fess up to nixing a national icon through iatrogenic error.

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