“[The Mercury capsule] doesn’t really require a pilot, and besides, you would have to sweep the monkey shit off the seat before you could sit down.”
— Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager, the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound, was no fan of Project Mercury — NASA’s first step to the Moon. The outspoken aviator and many of his peers slammed the agency’s efforts as being beneath the dignity of highly-trained pilots. To them, astronauts were simply guinea pigs — “spam in a can” — who had no control over the immense rocket they were riding.
With the passing of Neil Armstrong this past week, I’d posit the opposite conclusion. NASA’s astronauts were the most talented pilots on the planet. They had to be, given the intense demands placed upon them during that historic decade.
And among that specially-chosen elite of America’s top aces, Armstrong (one of the few civilians) was, without question, the absolute best pilot.
As evidence, I’ll cite three incidents in Armstrong’s short, but storied, career at NASA: the emergency with Gemini 8, the crash of the LLRV-1, and the Apollo 11 LEM landing. Each of these demonstrates, not only Armstrong’s physical skill in the cockpit, but his mental calm in face of extreme danger.
The Gemini program was the interim step between Mercury (getting men into space) and Apollo (getting men to the Moon). Many of the accomplishments and drama of this time period in the mid-60’s are forgotten today — in particular, the mission in which Armstrong was faced with a critical (and potentially fatal) emergency.
Gemini 8’s main objective was to perform an in-orbit rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft (a first for the US, though the Soviet Union had already done it by that time). Armstrong was the command pilot and Dave Scott — who would later walk on the Moon commanding Apollo 15 — was his pilot.
NASA had launched an unmanned target vehicle, the Agena, ahead of the Gemini 8. The initial goal was completed without a hitch. The crew found Agena, inspected it for any signs of damage from launch, and successfully docked with it. This in and of itself was no small feat and the primary reason why Armstrong was chosen for the assignment.
But then things went horribly wrong. To explain it with words comes off a little dry, and doesn’t give you a viscereal sense of the danger both men were in.
Luckily, HBO produced an excellent mini-series over a decade ago called From the Earth to the Moon (which is must-see viewing for anyone interested in how NASA got to the Moon in less than 10 years). The following segment illustrates better than I can what the stakes were for the crew of Gemini 8.
If it wasn’t clear from the dramatization above, the Gemini 8 increased its roll after undocking from the Agena — like a rock spinning after being released from a whirling slingshot. In fact, the vehicle approached one revolution per second (nearing the point of blackout or unconsciousness for the crew).
Armstrong knew that he was scrubbing the mission (including a planned spacewalk) by firing the Re-Entry Control System (RCS), but it was the only option: a cool-headed choice in the midst of a near-fatal spin.
The next memorable example of Armstrong’s prowess came over two years later at what is now called NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Armstrong was testing the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) — affectionately known as the “flying bedstead”.
This ungainly craft — essentially a jet engine on a skeletal frame with a pilot’s seat — was meant to simulate on Earth the flight characteristics of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) in the reduced gravity and zero atmosphere of the Moon.
Again, I will defer to the power of video — this time with actual footage of Armstrong flying the LLRV-1 — to convey how close he came to a fiery death.
As alluded to at the end the video, the crash was just another day at the office for Armstrong. Not because he was cocky and arrogant, but because of his intellect. As he walked away from the still-burning LLRV, Armstrong the engineer was already calculating what caused the accident. As reported by Wired:
Armstrong’s quiet engineering demeanor was perhaps best demonstrated after a flight in the LLRV. It was considered a very difficult, and dangerous aircraft to fly.
On a LLRV flight in 1968, Armstrong lost control of the aircraft due to a propellant leak and windy conditions. He ejected only moments before it crashed in a fireball.
An hour or so later fellow astronaut Alan Bean returned to his desk after lunch and found Armstrong at his own desk simply “shuffling some papers.” Bean didn’t believe what others had told him about the crash so he asked Armstrong who replied, “I lost control and had to bail out of the darn thing.”
(The amazed Bean, it should be noted, was the fourth man to walk on the Moon as part of Apollo 12.) Each time I watch this video, I’m astounded that Armstrong controlled that ridiculous contraption for as long as he did — and that he ejected away from the inevitable crash in time.
The final feather in Armstrong’s aviation cap, in my opinion, was actually getting the LEM to the Moon safely. Again, not many people (outside of NASA history buffs) know about how difficult and fraught with problems this first alien landing was.
Besides the distraction of a number of unknown alarms going off (ultimately determined to be benign). The lunar module, named Eagle, had overshot its designated landing site. Instead, in front of them were only steep crater slopes and a surface peppered with large rocks. So with a steady hand, Armstrong (and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin) continued on — burning precious fuel with each second.
Once more, I will let From the Earth to the Moon provide the dramatic impact of those fateful seconds until touchdown. Note that the clip alternates perspective and includes NASA Mission Control on Earth as well as Command Module Pilot Michael Collins who remained in orbit around the Moon as Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface.
I hope that piece helped give you a sense of the stakes that were involved as humanity took its first steps off the planet. Jason Paur, writing for Wired, summed up the moment well:
Most remember Neil Armstrong as the first person to walk on the Moon. As a test pilot, he often referred to being the first person to land a spacecraft on the Moon, something he liked to point out was the more challenging part of the mission from his point of view.
The more I reflect on Armstrong’s accomplishments, the more impressed I become. Even his fellow Apollo 11 moonwalker, Buzz Adlrin, freely acknowledged his respect — calling Neil “the best pilot I ever knew”. As reported in the Daily Beast:
That is high praise indeed coming from [Aldrin] who had flown F-86 jet fighters in combat in Korea and who has his own impressive set of flying and technical academic credentials.
Armstrong’s ability to memorize the smallest engineering detail and to be able to explain, in even more detail, the intricate working of any aircraft he tested made him the outstanding test pilot of his generation.
To this day, within military aviation, he is famous for his “steel trap” mind and his unflappable demeanor.
Neil Armstrong claimed publicly that he “was not chosen” to step on the Moon first. It was just his time in the rotation. Mission parameters often were swapped among the different Apollo flights, and his number happened to come up. Nothing more; nothing less.
The facts, however, don’t support his modesty. Every interview with or autobiography of NASA personnel in a decision-making capacity at the time admits that Armstrong was intentionally selected.
NASA chose Neil Armstrong because he was modest and could handle the fame of being a hero. They chose him because he was a civilian and we went to the Moon “in peace for all mankind”. But, ultimately, they chose Neil Armstrong because he was the best damn pilot around — and NASA had a very important job for him to do.
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