From the Miami Valley to the Moon: The life of Neil Armstrong

In 2001 Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, sat for a day-long interview with NASA historians to record his official oral history for the agency.

After speaking about his childhood growing up in Wapakoneta, his service in the Navy, his early days as a test pilot, and then finally the daring moon mission which occurred 50 years ago this week, Armstrong was asked what he wanted future generations to take away from learning about the space program of his era.

“…when I was a teenager, a boy, I thought that everything that happened before I was born was old ancient history, and I really didn’t think I needed to know all about it,” Armstrong told the interviewer at the end of a day-long conversation. “But with respect to aviation history, I really enjoyed it. I really learned all I could. But I wasn’t a big fan necessarily of everything else. So I can’t be critical of some other generation. I suspect you’ll come along, given a little chance.”

The footprint Armstrong left on the moon and this region is being celebrated extensively this week.

Learning to Fly

Armstrong learned to fly above his hometown in western Ohio.

Armstrong was born Aug. 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta and took an early interest in flight as he grew up in the small town about an hour north of Dayton.

He earned his pilot’s license at the age of 16. To get the money for his flying lessons, Armstrong worked at a Wapakoneta pharmacy, Sandy Brading, whose in-laws owned the store, told the Dayton Daily News.

“He was just a really really nice guy and he had a good sense of humor,” Brading said.

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The license allowed Armstrong to fly solo but not to take any passengers up in the sky with him, he told a NASA historian in 2001. Age 16 was the earliest pilots were allowed to get a license to fly a powered aircraft at the time.

Armstrong’s first solo flight after earning his license was above a grassy field in Wapakoneta.

“(It’s) A very exciting time when you go on your first solo,” he said in 2001.

Armstrong was 2 years old when he went to the National Air Races in Cleveland for the first time and he was 6 years old when he took a flight in a Ford Tri-motor plane. Armstrong had no memory of his early encounters with aircraft.

After growing up in Wapakoneta, Armstrong accepted a Navy scholarship to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, according to NASA.

Following college he would go on to serve as a Naval aviator from 1949 to 1952. His Navy uniform is now on display at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta.

Armstrong joined NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1955. He ended up serving as an engineer, test pilot and an administrator for the program.

In 1962, Armstrong took the leap from NASA employee to astronaut when he was assigned to lead the organization’s Gemini 8 mission, which launched on March 16, 1966. On the mission, Armstrong performed the first docking of two vehicles in space, which would pave the way for the success of the Apollo 11 mission he would lead three years later.

Though their paths crossed early in life, Brading said she didn’t really get to know Armstrong until he had already become a successful astronaut. After the 1966 Gemini trip, Armstrong got his first taste of what it was like to be a celebrity when he returned home to Wapakoneta, Brading said.

“He was not really comfortable with a lot of attention,” Brading said. “For him, he was just doing his job and carrying out what was required of him.”

‘One giant leap’

Just 30 seconds of fuel remained when Armstrong landed the lunar pod the Eagle on the moon’s surface July 20, 1969.

Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. dealt with a series of challenges and literal alarms going off as they traveled from the Columbia command module orbiting the moon to the lunar surface.

After leaving astronaut Michael Collins back on the Columbia, Armstrong had to pilot the Eagle past boulders as he approached the moon surface. On top of that, the Eagle’s computer system started sounding alarms, though nothing actually turned out to be wrong, according to NASA.

A few hours after landing on the moon, Armstrong was ready to set foot on it around 10:56 p.m.

“That is one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said, cementing his place in history and popular culture forever.

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Together, Armstrong and Aldrin explored the moon for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs. Armstrong would later receive an award from the School of Modern Photography for the stills he shot on the moon, said Dante Centuori, executive director of the Amrstrong museum.

Bob Springer, an astronaut from Ashland, Ohio, remembers watching the landing. Springer would go on to meet Armstrong years later during a 1990s gathering of the Buckeye State’s 25 astronauts.

“I can remember staying up fairly late at night…we went to somebody who had the biggest television set we knew of,” Springer said. “It was fantastic.”

Armstrong and Aldrin left behind an American flag and a patch honoring the fallen Apollo 1 crew on the moon. They traveled back to the Columbia to meet up with Collins before heading back to earth where they landed in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii on July 24.

Armstrong didn’t like to talk much about the fame the moon landing earned him, those who knew him said.

Brading recalled when Armstrong came to Wapakoneta for the 25th anniversary of the moon landing in 1994. Her husband was one of the people in charge of the celebrations.

Brading remembered that Armstrong did not want people to know exactly when he would make an appearance for the celebrations. Even after he made history, he still didn’t like all the attention he received, Brading said.

“He walked in unannounced and everybody stared,” she said. “You got a taste of what his life was like then…that was what he was confronted with all those years.”

After Apollo 11

After the moon landing, Armstrong continued to work for NASA until 1971. Upon leaving NASA, Armstrong moved to Lebanon and tried to live a quiet life.

Phyllis Hartsock, owner of the Village Ice Cream Parlor in Lebanon recalled Armstrong coming in for lunch. Hartsock told the Dayton Daily News Armstrong was a friendly yet private person who usually ordered a cup of split pea soup.

“Sometimes when people would come in the parlor, they would say: ‘Is that Neil Armstrong?’” Hartsock said. “I would say: ‘Yes, but you don’t bother him while he’s eating.’”

Not long after he left NASA, Armstrong became a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He worked at UC until 1979 when he entered the business world and served for 10 years as the chairman of computing technologies at the Virginia-based Aviation Inc., according to NASA.

Ralph Spitzen was one of Armstrong’s students at UC in the 1970s. Armstrong never offered up any stories to his students about traveling to the moon and Spitzen said they knew not to ask.

“We all had a sense — even back then — that he wanted his privacy and he wanted that to be respected,” Spitzen said.

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Spitzen recalled one of his classmates asking Armstrong what it felt like to walk on the moon one time while they were at a bar after taking final exams. Though he doesn’t remember Armstrong’s exact response, Spitzen said the astronaut had a way of changing the subject when the moon landing came up in conversation.

On some occasions though, Armstrong accepted his fame.

One time, Spitzen said someone from Ladies’ Home Journal came to interview Armstrong in their classroom in 1973. The article was part of a series the magazine was doing on some of the world’s most important people, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Most of the time though, Spitzen said Armstrong was like any other professor.

Spitzen remembered one time when Armstrong participated in a paper plane contest at UC. As Armstrong sat and folded paper into the shape of a plane, Spitzen snapped a photo of him that would become iconic and would later be used to memorialize the first man on the moon at the university.

When Armstrong died in 2012 at the age of 82, he was lauded as a hero by national leaders. But his fame was something Spitzen and others often forgot about as they sat in one of his classes.

“(My) first reaction was disbelief…followed by: ‘is this really happening?’” Spitzen said of having Armstrong as a teacher. “From time to time you would get focused on the subject matter…Then you’d kind of think about it and say: ‘Oh…this is Armstrong.’”


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