Born in the summer of 1930 near the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, Neil Armstrong obtained a pilot’s licence when he was just 16, before he could drive a car. He studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana, then, after becoming a Navy pilot, flew 78 missions during the Korean War. One sortie ended in a crash behind enemy lines, but Armstrong managed to reach safety a day later.
Leaving the Navy in 1952, he joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the modest collection of research laboratories and air bases that, six years later, would become NASA. As a test pilot at NACA’s High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California, he flew various aircraft, including the X-15 rocket plane, still the fastest manned aircraft. On his flights, Armstrong reached speeds of 6,400km/h and climbed more than 63km to reach the edge of space.
Armstrong became a NASA astronaut in 1962. Because of his experiences aboard the X-15, he commanded his first flight into orbit, aboard Gemini 8, in March 1966. With co-pilot David Scott, he performed the first docking of two spacecraft by mating the Gemini with an uncrewed Agena target vehicle. When it came to undocking, however, a thruster locked in the ‘on’ position and sent the Gemini 8 craft into a spin. Armstrong managed to avert disaster by recovering control, and in so doing got noticed by NASA’s management.
His coolness under pressure seemed extraordinary. In May 1968 he was flying a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), a skeletal four-legged contraption balancing on the trust from a single powerful jet engine. The LLRV tipped out of control and Armstrong ejected with less than two seconds to spare before it smashed into the ground and exploded. An hour later, he was back at work in his office as though nothing had happened.
Some of Armstrong’s pilot colleagues felt that he was too dry and academic to be a high-profile astronaut. NASA, however, considered him an ideal candidate for computerised systems-driven spacecraft, which needed abstract reasoning skills rather than traditional ‘stick-and-rudder’ heroics.
The blind luck of crew rotation secured Armstrong’s place in history. Frank Borman was expected to be the mission commander for the first landing attempt, until the pressures of the Moon race with Russia required him to lead the hastily scheduled Apollo 8 circumlunar flight in December 1968.
Armstrong became deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA after Apollo 11, but resigned in 1971 to become professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, a post he held for the rest of his career.
5 August 1930 – Neil Alden Armstrong is born in Wapakoneta, Ohio to Stephen Koenig Armstrong and Viola Louise Engel.
14 September 1947 – Begins studies in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, Indiana.
26 January 1949 – Called up to the US Navy to begin flight training.
12 August 1950 – Qualifies as a naval aviator.
29 August 1951 – First action in the Korean War, escorting a photo reconnaissance mission.
3 September 1951 – Forced to eject after being shot down on a bombing run.
January 1955 – Graduates from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Science degree.
28 January 1956 – Marries Janet Elizabeth Shearon. The couple have three children, Eric, Karen and Mark.
15 August 1957 – First flight in a rocket-propelled vehicle, the Bell X-1B, climbing to 18km.
28 January 1962 – Daughter Karen dies, aged two years old, after a six-month battle with a brain tumour.
20 April 1962 – X-15 rocket plane bounces off the atmosphere during re-entry, causing the longest X-15 flight in time and distance.
13 September 1962 – Selected for astronaut training by NASA.
16 March 1966 – First launch into space, as commander of Gemini 8.
23 December 1968 – Selected as commander of Apollo 11.
August 1971 – Resigns from NASA.
1989 – Wife Janet initiates a divorce.
12 June 1994 – Marries his second wife, Carol Held Knight.
25 August 2012 – Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon, dies as a result of complications associated with heart surgery.
Read more about the Apollo Moon landing:
- The mindset behind the Moon landing – Richard Wiseman
- Ladies who launch: the women behind the Apollo Program
- Remembering Neil Armstrong, by Patrick Moore [via BBC Sky At Night Magazine]
- The Space Race: how Cold War tensions put a rocket under the quest for the Moon