Neil Armstrong: From 'Nerdy Engineer' to Iconic Astronaut

Neil Armstrong: From ‘Nerdy Engineer’ to Iconic Astronaut

Harry Atkins

20 May 2022
Portrait of Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing mission in his space suit, with his helmet on the table in front of him. Behind him is a large photograph of the lunar surface.
Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s pointless to pretend that Neil Armstrong’s career could be remembered for anything other than his insurmountable standing as the first person to set foot on the Moon. Few, if any, moments have captured humanity’s collective attention with such spellbinding power as Armstrong’s historic moonwalk on 20 June 1969.

Famously, with the world watching, Armstrong fluffed his lines, omitting an ‘a’ before ‘man’ in his triumphant statement: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But the world didn’t notice. At that moment, Armstrong embodied humankind, and people across the planet shared in the profound gravity of the moment.

But in truth, however extraordinary that step was, it’s likely that Armstrong would have been happy to cast himself in a less grandiose role. He was a reluctant hero who sought to evade the public eye and tended to maintain a low profile throughout his life. So, how did this self-confessed “white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer” end up being the first man on the moon?

A precocious passion for aviation

Born near Wapakoneta, Ohio, on 5 August 1930, Neil Armstrong’s passion for flying was ignited early. When he was two his father took him to the National Air Races in Cleveland. Four years later, at the age of 6, he skipped Sunday School to experience his first airplane flight in a Ford Trimotor “Tin Goose”. Having spent a large part of his childhood devouring books and magazines about flying and building model airplanes, Armstrong went on to earn his first pilot’s license at 16, before he’d even learned to drive. Within a month he completed his first solo flight.

Neil Armstrong on 23 May 1952

Image Credit: United States Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He enrolled in Purdue University in 1947 as an aeronautical engineering student under the innovative Holloway Plan, which paid for a student’s education in exchange for service as an officer in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Naval service and combat in Korea

After two years at Purdue, Armstrong was called up by the Navy and, after completing flight school and becoming a naval aviator, flew 78 combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS Essex during the Korean War.

Armstrong saw plenty of combat flying a Grumman F9F Panther, an early jet fighter that he later described in less than glowing terms: “In retrospect, it didn’t fly well. It didn’t have particularly good handling qualities. Pretty good lateral directional control, but very stiff in pitch. Its performance both in max speed and climb were inferior to the MiG-15 by a substantial amount.”

Korea was a baptism of fire for Armstrong, who had only just turned 21 when he began flying combat missions from the USS Essex. Indeed, he faced a near-death experience within weeks of his first mission. In September 1951 Armstrong’s F9F Panther was hit by anti-aircraft fire while making a low bombing run.

F9F-2 Panthers over Korea, with Armstrong piloting S-116 (left)

Image Credit: John Moore, USN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Having lost control, the young fighter pilot collided with a pole which sliced off 3ft of the Panther’s right wing. He managed to “nurse the plane back to friendly territory” but realised he’d have to bail out. He had to carry out a procedure that all fighter pilots dreaded: ejecting at jet speed. It was a particularly troubling prospect for Armstrong given that he’d never done it before, not even in training.

Happily, Armstrong’s ejection, which entailed his seat being blasted out of the Panther’s cockpit by a shotgun shell, slamming his body with such force that some sort of injury was to be expected, was a success. His parachute drifted obligingly back to land and Armstrong landed with a bump in friendly territory, where he was promptly picked up by a passing American Jeep. He emerged unscathed but shaken. Released from duty in mid-1952, Armstrong returned to Purdue where he earned his degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955.

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Test piloting on the edge of outer space

Following his graduation Armstrong became a research pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA. The position placed him in the vanguard of aeronautical technology and suited his unusual skillset: Armstrong was both a skilled aviator and a self-described “white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer”.

Over the course of his career as a test pilot for NACA and then NASA, Armstrong flew more than 200 different planes, including everything from hang-gliders to hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft like the Bell X-1B and the North American X-15. Armstrong’s experience in experimental planes like the X-15, which set altitude and speed records in the 1960s, reaching the edge of outer space and hitting 4,520 miles per hour, undoubtedly made him a leading candidate to become an astronaut. However, as a civilian test pilot, Armstrong was ineligible for America’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury.

Armstrong and X-15-1 after a research flight in 1960

Image Credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until 1962, when NASA sought applicants for its second human spaceflight program, Project Gemini – this time open to civilians – that Armstrong became an astronaut. But Armstrong’s career as an astronaut and, ultimately, his place in history, was very nearly a non-starter. His application for Project Gemini arrived a week after the deadline and would have been disregarded had Dick Day, a flight simulator expert who had worked with Armstrong, not spotted it and slipped it into the pile.

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Harry Atkins