Born on 5 August 1930, Neil Armstrong was the first of Viola and Stephen Armstrong’s 3 children. He grew up near Wapakoneta, Ohio, although because of Stephen’s government job the family often travelled across the state.
Half a lifetime later, Armstrong took humanity’s first steps on the Moon. He became the world’s “reluctant hero”, a symbol for the possibilities of human exploration and discovery during the age of space travel. Over his career, he spent a total of 8 days and 14 hours in space and flew more than 200 different types of aircraft.
Armstrong died in Cincinnati on 25 August 2012 after complications from heart surgery. In his memorial speech, then President Barack Obama described Armstrong as “among the greatest of American heroes – not just of his time, but of all time”.
Here are 10 facts about the remarkable life of the first man on the moon.
1. Armstrong could fly planes before getting his driver’s licence
His father took him out aged 6 in a Ford Trimotor plane known as the ‘Tin Goose’. By age 15, he had enough flying experience to confidently pilot a cockpit. Armstrong earned his student flight certificate on his 16th birthday – before he was even legally able to drive on the road.
2. Neil Armstrong had a military career before becoming an astronaut
Armstrong earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University, his tuition sponsored by the US Navy as part of the Holloway Plan for improving the education of US naval officers. He soon trained as an aircraft navigator and saw action in the Korean War, flying the Grumman F9F Panther from the aircraft carrier USS Essex.
In September 1951, while making a low bombing run, his jet was damaged when it was caught by an anti-aircraft cable stretching across a valley. The cables are designed to severely damage enemy planes – which they did. Armstrong’s jet had one wing entirely cut off and he was forced to bail out.
3. Armstrong joined NASA’s Astronaut Corps in September 1962
Although applications for the US Air Force’s Man In Space Soonest programme had first opened in 1958, as a civilian rather than military test pilot, Armstrong had not been eligible. Yet in April 1962, NASA opened applications to a second group of astronauts for Project Gemini, a two-manned space mission.
He nearly missed out on being selected at all, handing in his application past the deadline of 1 June. However Dick Day, a flight simulator who had worked closely with Armstrong before, saw his delayed application and boldly slipped it into the pile before anyone noticed.
4. Armstrong first journeyed into space on the Gemini 8 mission
On the Gemini 8 mission, which launched on 16 March 1966, Armstrong became the first American civilian in space; Valentina Tereshkova, from the Soviet Union, had become the first civilian and woman in space 3 years before. The Gemini mission was the most complex yet but achieved the first-ever docking between 2 spacecraft.
However, during the docking procedure the ship started spinning so fast that it was turning once a second. Armstrong reluctantly engaged the Reentry Control System, signalling that the astronauts had to abort their mission and make a swift return to Earth.
5. He narrowly escaped death in 1968
To allow the astronauts to practice landing the Lunar Module, NASA commissioned a pair of Lunar Landing Research Vehicles. The practice vehicles, nicknamed ‘Flying Bedsteads’, were built to replicate the reduced gravity the astronauts would experience on the Moon.
On 6 May 1968, while some 30 metres above the ground, Armstrong’s vehicle started rolling. He quickly ejected and watched as the vehicle plummeted to the ground and exploded.
Analysis showed that if Armstrong had ejected just half a second later, his parachute would not have opened in time to save his life.
6. Armstrong was the first person to walk on the Moon
The Apollo 11 mission, which launched on 16 July 1969, aimed to land a lunar module safely on the Moon. Armstrong stepped his left boot onto the lunar surface at 02:56 UTC (Universal Coordinated Time) July 21.
He was joined by Buzz Aldrin 19 minutes later and together they started testing how people could move about on the Moon. They also put up a plaque and the American flag, before Armstrong went for a walk to East Crater, 65 metres from the Lunar Module.
Before getting back into Eagle, Armstrong and Aldrin left a memorial package to Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, and the Apollo 1 astronauts who had died in a terrible accident during the 1967 attempt to land on the Moon.
7. Armstrong alleged his famous line on the Moon was misheard
As he stepped off the Eagle’s ladder onto the Moon, Armstrong said, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He had decided on this now immortalised phrase before they landed.
However, Armstrong and NASA later insisted he said, “that’s one small step for a man”, explaining the ‘a’ was either lost in transmission or dropped because of the way that he spoke.
“In a helmet you find you lose a lot of syllables. Sometimes a short syllable like ‘a’ might not be transmitted. However, when I listen to it, I can’t hear it. But the ‘a’ is implied, so I’m happy if they just put it in parentheses.”
8. He was a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cincinnati University for 8 years
Following the excitement of Apollo 11, Armstrong announced he would be stepping back from space flight to teach. He left NASA in 1971 and took up a professorship at the University of Cincinnati.
He was regarded as a good teacher – tough but fair. After 8 years of teaching, Armstrong then returned to work for NASA on several commissions, including being part of the investigations into both the Apollo 13 mission malfunction and the tragic Challenger space shuttle incident.
9. Armstrong went to the North Pole in 1985
The expedition was organised and led by Mike Dunn, who wanted to take men he deemed the ‘greatest explorers’ to the North Pole.
Included on the expedition were Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Steve Fossett, a record-setting aviator, and Patrick Morrow, an extreme mountain climber.
Armstrong said he wanted to see the North Pole from the ground this time rather than from space.
10. In 1994 he sued Hallmark Cards for misappropriating his likeness
Hallmark created a Christmas decoration called ‘The Eagle has landed’ that used an imitation of Armstrong’s voice. A settlement was reached outside of court, and the substantial sum was donated by Armstrong to his alma mater, Purdue University.