One small step into immortality
NEIL Armstrong’s horizons were great but he never forgot his roots in the Scottish Borders.
He was one of the most famous men on the planet and the moment he became the first person to set foot on the Moon he took human endeavour into a new dimension.
On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered the evocative, often mis-quoted, words: “One small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind.”
But he was a reluctant hero, whose visit to his ancestral hometown of Langholm, Dumfriesshire, in 1972 to accept the freedom of the town was one of the very few public appearances he ever made.
Armstrong, who has died after complications following heart surgery at the age of 82, never wrote his autobiography nor embraced the celebrity circuit like fellow Apollo 11 pilot Buzz Aldrin.
He rarely gave interviews or lectures and avoided autograph hunters. But it was clear from the few public utterances he made that the momentous event of the Moon landing had, unsurprisingly, changed his life.
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth,” he once said. “I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
An estimated 600 million people – a fifth of the world’s population – watched the landing or listened to it on the radio, the largest audience for any single event in history. Parents huddled with their children in front of the television, mesmerized.
At that moment Armstrong became world famous, but he remained a fastidious engineer who was reluctant to become the face of space.
Growing up in Wapakoneta, nestled in the rich agricultural lands of Western Ohio, Armstrong had a strong interest in flying and earned his pilot’s licence when he was just 16.
He said: “Gliders, sail planes, they’re wonderful flying machines. It’s the closest you can come to being a bird.”
After flying combat missions during the Korean War, he became a test pilot and joined Nasa’s astronaut program in 1962.
His first spaceflight was the Nasa Gemini 8 mission in 1966, for which he was the command pilot, becoming one of the first Americans to fly in space.
On this mission, he performed the first manned docking of two spacecraft, with pilot David Scott.
Armstrong’s second and final spaceflight was as mission commander of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission in 1969.
As they touched down on the surface of the moon Armstrong sent a radio message: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
At Nasa command the engineers breathed a sigh of relief. “Roger, Tranquillity,” it radioed back.
“We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
On this mission, Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface and spent two- and-a-half-hours exploring and collecting samples while Michael Collins remained in orbit in the command module.
Asked about his experience on the Moon in a television interview, Armstrong said: “It’s an interesting place to be. I recommend it.”
He believed space exploration was a great step forward for mankind, saying: “The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited.”
Although he had been a navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for Nasa’s forerunner and an astronaut, Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program.
In 1970, Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at Nasa but left the following year to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
He remained there until 1979 and during that time bought a farm, where he raised cattle and corn. He stayed out of public view, accepting few requests for interviews or speeches.
“He didn’t give interviews, but he wasn’t a strange person or hard to talk to,” said Ron Huston, a colleague at the University of Cincinnati. “He just didn’t like being a novelty.”
“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in February 2000 in one of his rare public appearances. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”
However Armstrong always believed in the importance of space exploration and he went public in 2010 with his concerns about President Barack Obama’s space policy that shifted attention away from a return to the Moon and emphasised private companies developing spaceships.
He testified before Congress, said later he had “substantial reservations”.
Armstrong was proud of his Scottish roots and his visit to Langholm in Dumfriesshire where he accepted the freedom of the town in 1972 is still fondly remembered by the people who live there.
Depute Town Clerk Grace Brown described how surprised they were he had accepted the invitation. “We were quite incredulous really, I think, because we did not expect that someone who had walked on the Moon would want to come to a small town like Langholm.
“It was an absolutely fantastic day. The bunting was out, the bands were out and the town was in festive mood.
“I think he was quite impressed after he had become an honorary burgess, he referred to Langholm as his home town.”
Armstrong’s achievements and commitment to Langholm kindled pride among Armstrongs all over the world.
Fiona Armstrong of the Clan Armstrong Trust said: “The Moon landing was one of the great events of the 20th century – Neil Armstrong’s visit to Langholm, the Border town’s greatest day ever.
“There’s maybe only one slight regret – that he called it a “giant leap for mankind” and not a “muckle leap”.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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