The sentence he spoke on July 20, 1969 from 250,000 miles away on the powdery regolith of the Sea of Tranquility is one of the most memorable quotes in the English language. He is an American hero and an explorer who will be remembered forever in the same league as Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Chuck Yeager, and Yuri Gagarin. At the same time he is also remembered by his family as a loving husband, father, and grandfather. Neil Armstrong has been described as a reluctant hero who relished his privacy and selflessly credited those around him for the success of humanity’s first trip to the Moon. In a statement released by his family they wrote, “While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”
Born in the same state that gave us Wilber and Orville Wright, Neil Armstrong earned a Bachelor’s degree from Purdue University (where a hall of engineering has his name) and a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California in aeronautical engineering. He was a naval aviator flying 78 combat missions in Korea. Armstrong became a test pilot, flying over 200 different types of aircraft including the X-15, then the fastest plane. An incredibility skilled and professional pilot-engineer, Armstrong was selected to be an astronaut in 1962.
Neil Armstrong first traveled into space on Gemini 8 in 1966. This mission conducted the first rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft. Unfortunately the mission lasted less than 11 hours because of unanticipated rolling which became so extreme that Armstrong had to undock and fire the retro-rockets which forced an early return to Earth. His next mission in space was Apollo 11.
Traveling to the Moon as commander of Apollo 11 with command module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong became the first person to step on the Moon. His first words from the surface of the Moon were heard live by over 450 million people (approximately 12% of the world’s population at the time). “That’s one small step for a man, a giant step for mankind.” Although too young to remember, my parents said that my one month old brother, Joel, and I were among the viewers who watched it on television.
After his safe return to Earth, Armstrong left NASA after a year and took an academic position at the University of Cincinnati teaching aeronautical engineering. He left that position in 1979 and represented a number of American companies. Although often shunning the lime-light, Armstrong provides a stellar example of the rewards of hard work, education, professionalism, and service to his country. Neil Armstrong would have been remembered, no matter how he lived his life, for those first footfalls on the lunar surface. However, Armstrong’s character is as worthy of admiration as his walk on the Moon. While Neil Armstrong has passed, this American hero’s legacy will live on.
Dr. John Smetanka,
Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.