On 20th July 1936, when he was just five years old, Neil Armstrong experienced the thrill of flying for the first time.  His father had paid for them both to be taken up in a Ford TriMotor, affectionately known as a ‘Tin Goose’, over Columbus, Ohio. 

On 20th July 1969 the world watched with bated breath as Armstrong climbed down the steps of a small space capsule and became the first man to set foot on the moon.

By the time Armstrong and his two fellow astronauts blasted off from Cape Kennedy on the Apollo 11 spacecraft, he had a wealth of experience and thousands of flying hours under his belt.  As a US fighter pilot he had flown 78 missions in the Korean War, earning an Air Medal and surviving an emergency ejection when his aircraft was hit by enemy fire.

With a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue University, Indiana, in 1955 Armstrong became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.  Among the aircraft he flew was the North American X-15, an experimental rocket-powered aircraft which was capable of reaching the edge of outer space.  Armstrong took the X-15 on one of the fastest recorded flights, reaching 3,898 mph and achieving MACH 5.74 (over five times the speed of sound) at an altitude of over 18 miles. 

“He had a mind that absorbed things like a sponge and a memory that remembered them like a photograph.”   Bill Dana, US Air Force test pilot

Armstrong felt that he had been born a generation too late to set any world records for aviation, but there was still a ‘final frontier’, and that was the realm of space flight.  In 1962, as ranks of senators mopped themselves in the heat, President John F Kennedy declared to an ecstatic crowd in Houston, Texas, that by the end of the decade the US would have landed a man on the moon and returned him safely to Earth.  His words galvanised the world, and few people disbelieved him.  Armstrong certainly didn’t.

“Man in his quest for knowledge and progress is determined, and cannot be deterred.  The exploration of space will go ahead... We mean to be a part of it - we mean to lead it.   The eyes of the world are now looking to space, to the moon and to the planets beyond.”    John F Kennedy, Rice University, September 12th 1962

At NASA, the Saturn and Apollo missions began paving the way with the first manned flights around the moon, and soon the search was on for a team of astronauts who had the experience, the skill, and, just as importantly, the mental qualities which they would need to survive on a journey that promised unprecedented glory but no guarantee of return. 

Armstrong had already served as an astronaut in the Gemini missions which had orbited the Earth and successfully docked with an unmanned spacecraft;  many of these astronauts were selected for the new program, and in 1968 Armstrong was offered the post of Commander of Apollo 11.  At the time, he had no way of knowing that this particular mission would land on the moon.  But a year later he and two compatriots, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, were blasted away from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying with them the hopes and prayers of the world.  After 76 hours, and having travelled 240,000 miles, Apollo 11 entered lunar orbit, and the next day Armstrong was uttering his famous and much-debated words as the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. 

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong revealed later that this line was only conceived after he and Aldrin had guided the Eagle space module to touch down in the Sea of Tranquillity.  With calm logic, he had worked out that they had only a fifty-fifty chance of a successful landing, and he saw no point in dreaming up a phrase that he might never use.  He and Aldrin spent about two hours on the moon, unfurling a US flag and taking photographs;  they then re-entered the Eagle and, with the crescent Earth rising eerily in the inky blackness, they rejoined the command capsule which Collins had maintained in orbit and returned safely home to a changed world.        

Behind them they left a plaque which read:  “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon – we came in peace for all mankind.”

In 1971, Neil Armstrong was awarded the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.


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Article by Jo Woolf for RSGS, January 2015

Quotes from:  

John F Kennedy’s address at Rice University, Houston, Texas, 12th September 1962.    

Bill Dana, via obituary of Armstrong in New York Times, 25th August 2012:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/science/space/neil-armstrong-dies-first-man-on-moon.html?pagewanted=all