Neil Armstrong: Childhood, Navy Career, Married Life, Apollo Lunar Program And Death


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Moon has been an object of human fascination from as early on as our history on this planet could be traced. So much ink has flowed over the years in reverence to its majestical aura, in the form of poems and prose alike. Moon has been imagined and dreamt of as an object of heartfelt appreciation and as a standard for all that is cool, calm, composed and beautiful. Not being limited to of having gained aesthetic and literary attention, it has been an object of scientific curiosity as well right from the time, human race reached the point where scientific development brought down ‘space’ and all that it contains from a fantastical, mystical high point to a more reachable, mathematically chartable viewpoint. Neil Armstrong was the first-ever human to have lived up to that dream, a dream that was dreamt by scientists, aestheticians and literary enthusiasts all alike, of having touched the moon quite literally. With him stepping on the surface of the moon, he paved a way for the human race towards traversing deeper space in the coming years. His footsteps on the moon have left a mark that will forever be considered as evidence of human capabilities and infinite potential. This historic moment marks the first step in the unraveling of the deepest mysteries of infinite space by human’s remarkable will, ambition, wit, bravery, and talent. This is the story of an enigmatic icon, the first man on the moon; Neil Armstrong.


Childhood years

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Neil Armstrong was born on 5th August 1930 in Wapakoneta, a city in Ohio. He had German, Scottish and Irish bloodline. His father Stephen Koenig Armstrong was an auditor and his mother was Viola Louise nee Engel. He had two siblings, his brother, Dean and his sister, June. The  Armstrongs changed as many as twenty cities because of Neil’s father’s occupation, before finally settling in Ohio in 1944.

Neil’s father took him to the Pulitzer Trophy Race when he was two, which grew a deep desire and love for flying in his mind. He also took little Neil for a flight in Ford Trimotor when he was five. These experiences influenced Neil to take up flying lessons at the city aviation school from a young age.  By the age of sixteen, he received his student pilot license and did his first solo flight in the same year.  

He also worked as a boy scout during his schooling. He was awarded the ‘Distinguished Eagle Scout Award’, the highest rank of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and also the ‘Silver Buffalo Award’. In 1944 he completed his high school in Blume High School in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

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College Education and Navy career


After his schooling, he decided to take up aeronautical engineering for further studies. He had offers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University. He tended to join Purdue and did so in 1947. He was the second person to receive a college education in his family. Under the Holloway plan; the state gave him the scholarship to promote his college education, on the condition that after successfully completing the first two years of graduation he would have to give three-year service in the American army.  

After the completion of two years in graduation, Neil went to train as a pilot in the Navy. He learned to work as a jet aircraft tester. During his training, Neil took off his first flight as a trainee in the North American Aviation T-6, in 1949 and his first carrier landing was on a USS Cabot in 1950. When he qualified as a Naval Aviator he was sent to give his service in the then on-going Korean War. He took off his first official flight as a pilot in 1951 in a ‘Grumman F9F Panther’ fighter jet. He completed seventy-eight combat missions during the war. He also met an accident when his fighter bomber was shot down by the enemy forces. He was awarded three honorary military awards; ‘The Air Medal’, ‘National Defence Service Medal’ and two gold stars. He was a reserve in the American Navy for eight years but was relieved from the active duty in 1952.

After this service, Neil returned back to his college and continued his studies. He joined two clubs of his university, Phi Delta Theta (Social fraternity) and Kappa Psi (Pharmaceutical fraternity). He was also the chairman of the Purdue Aero Flying Club. He was a part of the college marching band as a baritone player. His academic performance was average throughout his college education. He graduated in 1955 with a Bachelors’s degree in Science.

Married Life


Armstrong fell in love with Janet Elizabeth Sheron during his college years. She was majoring in Home Economics from Purdue. She was an excellent synchronized swimmer and it was during a swimming event when Neil first saw her. They met at a party organized by Alpha Chi Omega sorority. The two got married on 28th January 1956 in Wilmette, Illinois and moved to Juniper Hills in California. Then they shifted to Houston, Texas and later settled in Lebanon, Ohio. She was the one that kept their home together while Neil was away for training and missions.

They had three children together; two sons, Eric (1957) and Mark (1962) and one daughter, Karen (1959). But tragedy touched the happiness of their family. Their two-year-old daughter Karen was diagnosed with a brain tumor. And on the same day as their anniversary, which they never celebrated again, she passed away.

Many years later, in 1994 the couple split up after forty years of a long relationship. This decision was taken because Janet felt lonely and burdened while Neil was mostly busy in his work and emotionally absent for her. Janet moved to Utah and found a haven for herself. Later, in 2018 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away at the age of eighty-four.

Neil, whereas married again in 1999, five years after the divorce from his first wife. His second wife was Carol Held Knight, whom he met in 1992 in a golf club. She was fifteen years younger than him. They got married in Indian Hill, Ohio and stayed together till death.

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Service as a Research Test Pilot


After completing his college education, Armstrong entered as a research test pilot at NASA Flight research station but due to unavailability of vacancy he was referred to the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland in 1955 but he left it within months, as soon as a vacancy was available at the NASA’s  Flight Research Station at Edward’s Air Force base in California. His work was to check experimental aircraft. There, he worked with two hundred different models of high-speed aircraft and missiles like the Century Series Fighters and the X-15 with a maximum speed of six and a half thousand km per hour. He completed his full solo flight in November 1960.

In 1958, He was selected in the team for the program ‘Man in Space Soonest’, initiated by the United States Air Forces (USAF). It aimed towards sending a man in space before USSR.  But was canceled immediately only to be replaced by the Mission Mercury.

He also took part in the X-20 Dyna-Soar program in 1960 which was involved in the creation of manned rocket plans like the North American X-15. He gave seven flights on these devices by 1962 reaching the height of 63kms at the speed of 5.74 Mach. The X-15 was eventually replaced by Dyna-soar, a glider. He left this program when he could see no growth in the project.

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Career in Astronomy


NASA released the PROJECT MERCURY in 1958 which aimed at selecting a group of seven military pilots to train them as astronauts. Armstrong was not a military test pilot but a civilian test pilot, hence he was not eligible for the same.  Then in 1962, NASA released the applications for PROJECT GEMINI for the second group of nine astronauts and this one was open for civilian test pilots. There were 253 applications received for this program. Neil sent his application but was late by a week from the deadline. Even though the deadline was long passed, it was to the credit of his friend who was aware of Neil’s potential and slipped the late application within the pile before it reached the committee.

After a medical test, Deke Slayton, who was the director of NASA’s flight crew operation gave Armstrong an invitation to join the NASA Astronaut Corps, which was to select and train astronauts and Neil accepted the offer. And so, on 17th September 1962, he became the first non-military astronaut.

Armstrong was then involved in Project Gemini. This mission was a human spaceflight program and its objective was to develop space travel technology by sending astronauts on space rendezvous and observe their needs in space. It was a precursor to the Apollo space mission. Armstrong was the commander in the backup crew along with Elliot See (other civilian test pilots) for Gemini 5 and the prime crew had members from group one, Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad. This program was generally successful. In 1963, NASA recruited one more group of astronauts which consisted of fourteen units, by the name of astronaut group three.

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For further missions, the backup crew for the first mission was to be the prime crew for next. And hence, Armstrong and other members of group two were the prime commanders for Gemini 8. The crew assignments for the Gemini program were that the commanders were from Group two, the pilots from group three and the backup crew from group one.  Armstrong was the commander of Titan II under the Gemini 8 program, with David Scott (member of group three) as the pilot. It was launched on March 16, 1966. They had to roam in 55 orbits and then dock with an Agena target vehicle. They did dock with the target vehicle but due to a technical difficulty they had to undock and they had to return earlier than expected. Though its objectives were not achieved yet it was helpful in recognizing the problem and make further improvements in the docking.

Armstrong was then in the backup crew as a commander for Gemini 11. Under his guidance, Gordan, and Cooper, the prime crew for Gemini 11, made it successful and achieved all its objectives. The Gemini program was a success overall.  NASA awarded both Armstrong and Scott with the ‘NASA Exceptional Service Award’. Armstrong got a huge increment in his pay scale and he became the highest paid-astronaut.

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Apollo Lunar Program


After the success of the Gemini program, NASA planned to move steps further towards the moon. With the experience and advancements gained by the previous two projects, project Mercury (one-man project) and project Gemini (two-man project), NASA developed to Project Apollo (three-man project) to land the first man on the moon. Armstrong was the backup commander for Apollo 8, whose objective was to reach the moon’s orbit and return. Then on 9th January 1969, the crew arrangements for Apollo 11 were released. Subsequently, Armstrong was in the prime crew of Apollo 11 as a commander along with Buzz Aldrin, Lunar module pilot, and Michael Collins as the Command module Pilot.

On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11, rocket Saturn V was launched at 13:32:00 from Kennedy Space Center.  It was the climax of years of research. There were three stages of Saturn V, which were required to launch Apollo on the moon. On the top of the rocket was the actual spacecraft, which consisted of three parts, the lunar module (which will eventually land on the moon), the service module and the command module at the tip (where the astronauts were present).

Stage 1 launched the rocket at 42 miles above the earth and reaching the speed of 6000 miles/hr. The first part of the rocked was then detached. Then the second stage of the rocket took it up to the altitude of 103Miles and then detached from it. The third stage fixed the rocket in the earth’s orbit at 103 miles above the earth’s surface. Then after final checks at earth’s orbit, the Saturn V launched towards the moon, which is known as the Translunar Ejection. Then the only spacecraft was suspended into space. From the spacecraft, the lunar module was to be extracted, which was present in the middle of it. The command module present at the tip of spacecraft disintegrated, flipped  180 degrees and the docked with the lunar module and extracted it out of the spacecraft. The rest of the rocket was left behind. All this process took only about three and a half hours. Then it settled in the moon’s orbit. Landing on the moon was also tricky but then the lunar module ultimately touched down to the surface of the moon.

On 21st July at 02:56 UTC, Armstrong came out of the module. It was a historic moment for millions of people as he stepped down on the moon’s surface. Armstrong muttered, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. Aldrin also joined him later. They also hoisted the American flag on the lunar surface which took around ten minutes to fix on the ground. They spent around two and a half hours on the moon. According to Armstrong, it was very hot on the moon so they couldn’t afford to stay any longer outside the space module.  After about twenty-one hours on the moon, Eagle, the lunar module took off the moon’s surface. On 24th July, Neil Armstrong and his crew successfully and safely returned to earth.  The astronauts were kept in solitude surveillance and were not allowed to immediately have social contact, just in case they brought some germs along with them from the moon.


His life back on earth


There was widespread popularity that came along with Armstrong back on earth. He was then known worldwide as the first man to have walked on the moon. He was awarded an honorary Master’s degree in Aerospace engineering. Neil, however, was not very fond of fame and he decided to keep a low-profile in his further life. He took up the position of Deputy Associate Administrator for aeronautics at the ARPA (Advanced Research and Technology), which he resigned after a year, in 1971. Then in 1972, he took up the teaching profession and became a lecturer at the University of Cincinnati, Department of Aerospace Engineering and resigned in 1980. He also advertised for several companies, starting with Chrysler in 1979. He also served as the vice-chairman in the Rogers Commission to help investigate the explosion in Apollo 13 on the president’s advice in 1986. He also did many tours around the world.


Death and Legacy


Armstrong was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. To relieve it, he had bypass surgery on 7th August 2012. But he developed complications and on 25th August 2012,  at the age of eighty-two he passed away in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Armstrong received a plethora of awards and honors, during and after his lifetime. James R. Hansen authorized his biography, ‘First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong’, which was brought out in 2005.  There was a film adaptation of this biography, named ‘First Man’ which was released in 2018. Neil Armstrong has left a non-transient forever mark in the history of humankind and his name will forever be a reminder to all those who gaze up at the night sky and look at the moon in appreciation and fascination of the immense potential that human minds combined with their indomitable will are capable of. 


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