Pushing the Envelope


The twentieth century saw rapid changes in the mechanization of society. None was faster, literally, than that of powered flight. In 1903 the Wright brothers took to the skies above Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in a crudely made airplane, and only sixty-six years later, Americans prepared to launch a rocket that would send a man to the moon. The public had long been captivated by the thought of space and had been challenged by a young president. The road turned out to be even more difficult and dangerous than imagined. A number of men died trying to achieve it, but the dream refused to die. One of those determined to see the mission through to the end was a former Navy pilot from Ohio. He had valiantly served his country overseas before coming home to take on an even greater challenge. It was his earlier experiences that prepared him to soar higher. His name was Neil Armstrong. This is the story of his road to becoming an astronaut, and not just any astronaut, but the first to step foot on the moon.

As a young boy, Neil Armstrong developed a love of flying that followed him the rest of his life. Born in August 1930 near Wapakoneta, Ohio, he took his first flight outside Warren, Ohio when he was six-years-old. Over the next nine years he was often in his bedroom reading aviation magazines and building model planes. During World War II, some of his models were sent to local military and civil defense authorities to help train recruits in distinguishing Allied planes from Axis aircraft. It was not enough to just build model planes however; young Neil wanted to experience the joy of flying as a pilot. At age fifteen he got a job at the local drugstore to pay for flying lessons. He spent his weekends at the local airfield helping to overhaul aircraft before taking to the air, mostly in a basic version of an Aeronca Chief, the Champ. Neil received his student pilot’s license at age sixteen and soloed soon after. Wanting to test his abilities, he completed two cross-country flights, one to Cincinnati, that covered 215 miles in all, and another to West Lafayette, Indiana, over 300 miles, to register for Purdue University. In October 1947 he entered Purdue University, majoring, of course, in aeronautical engineering. In early 1949 he put his course work on hold and enlisted as a U.S. Naval aviator. He reported to Pensacola, Florida for training and graduated in August 1950. He received orders to ship out for the West Coast to join Fighter Squadron 51, the Navy’s first all-jet squadron, and, less than a year later, he was bound for action in the Korean War.

As a wartime aviator, Neil developed the reputation of a cool operator. In late June 1951 he and Fighter Squadron 51 boarded the U.S.S. Essex and set out for the Far East. The ship arrived off the Korean coast on August 22nd, and over the next two weeks Neil flew reconnaissance and bombing missions over Songjin, Wonsan and Pu-Chong, North Korea and joined in the destruction of trains, bridges and tanks bringing supplies to the North Korean and Chinese armies. His greatest test came on September 3rd when he was assigned to bomb freight yards and a bridge in a valley running from Majon-ni, North Korea to inside South Korea, a region codenamed Green Six. Upon reaching the valley, he set up his attack run, but before he could drop his bombs, the fighter sliced through a North Korean cable designed to cripple low-flying aircraft. The cable clipped off nearly six feet of his right wing, causing severe lateral control problems. Still, Neil did not panic, but rather he trimmed the tabs and skillfully climbed the aircraft back up to 14,000 feet. The aircraft could not be safely landed in such a damaged condition, so ejection was the only real option. He managed to reach friendly territory before bailing out and later returned to the Essex. Three months later, on December 2, 1951, he was on combat air patrol (CAP) when his engine quit on him. Again, Armstrong did not panic. He went through the emergency procedure to reignite the engine and returned to the ship unharmed. As 1951 turned into 1952, he continued to participate in reconnaissance missions and attacks on North Korea’s transportation network. His combat service ended in March 1952. He had flown a total of seventy-eight missions and spent nearly 121 hours in the air. He returned home with a chest full of medals, including the Air Medal, the Gold Star, the Korean Service Medal and the Engagement Star. He had proven his bravery time and again, but he was not content to rest on his laurels. He wanted to “push the envelope” as far as he could, and there was only way for him to do that.

New and better aircraft were being produced, but there were few men actually equipped to handle these new models. Neil’s wartime experiences and engineering skills made him a perfect candidate for the job. Hoping to join the exclusive fraternity of test pilots, he returned to Purdue to complete his education and graduated in January 1955. As he prepared his resume, he initially considered becoming a production test pilot where he would assess the suitability of each new design, but he ultimately chose to become an experimental test pilot “to assist in the development of superior aircraft.” He even knew the exact kind of experimental pilot he wanted to be — a research pilot. In that capacity, he would help advance flight across a vast range of scientific and technological boundaries. He joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and was assigned to the Free-Flight Propulsion Section at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. Among his responsibilities were helping develop new anti-icing systems for new aircraft. Some of his most useful experiments, however, were those related to a field he began to pursue with great excitement — space flight.

Over the next few years, Neil Armstrong began to transition from a Naval aviator into a spaceman. At Lewis Laboratory Neil employed his aeronautical engineering skills to advance free flight rocketry. Among his experiments were flights with a solid-rocket, known as the ERM-5. As the rocket was released and fell to Earth, he evaluated the characteristics of heat transfer at high Mach numbers and the rocket’s reaction to boundary-layer transition. He provided detailed reports to his superiors, and they were so impressed they tasked him with designing new component parts for more advanced rockets. In July he transferred to Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles, California where he flew new experimental aircraft, like the rocket-powered X-1B and the X-15. He piloted the X-15 a total of seven times, once at a speed greater than Mach 4, and on April 20, 1962, he set the record for the longest distance (350 miles) and longest endurance (12:28:07 minutes), while climbing to more than 200,000 feet. He contemplated remaining with the X-15 program, but he also knew the country was becoming more enamored with the thought of manned space flight. Even while flying the X-15, he began to participate in transatmospheric flying, actually leaving the earth’s atmosphere.

As a test pilot, Neil had already soared to great heights, but now he wished to truly reach for the stars. His first attempt to do so came when he was selected to fly Lockheed’s F-104, the “Missile with a Man.” After taking off, he zoomed past 45,000 feet, the place beyond which a person could not survive without a spacesuit, all the way to 90,000 feet, the edge of space. He then dived back into the lower atmosphere where he was able to reignite the engine, which had previously been shut off, and land safely. These experiments encouraged him to claim it was possible to fly into orbit without relying on an autopilot or other remote control. Some scientists were skeptical of the claim. They questioned “whether the g field that you had to go through in a rocket-launch profile would adversely affect your ability to do the precision job of flying into orbit.” To prove his contention, Neil travelled to the U.S. Navy’s Johnsville Centrifuge in Pennsylvania. There he strapped himself into a custom made seat at the end of a fifty-foot-long arm and experienced every possible flight condition as the chair whizzed around the room. At times the acceleration was as much as 15 g’s — fifteen times the force of gravity. So much blood rushed from his head that he could only see one of the instruments, but he refused to get sick. Having proved his hypothesis, he now turned his attention to actually developing a plane capable of space travel.

In 1961, the same year President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to landing a man on the moon within the decade, Neil left Edwards for Seattle, Washington. There he served as a consultant for Boeing in the development of the X-20, known as Dyna-Soar. Unlike the capsules used by Mercury and Gemini astronauts, the X-20 was a winged vehicle that could actually fly. Neil and his fellow designers determined to provide the vehicle with enough lift that it could maneuver down to runways, just as the Space Shuttle would eventually do. He spent the fall and winter of 1961 and early 1962 experimenting with the F5D to determine how to ensure a safe landing approach. On March 15, 1962 he was chosen one of six pilots who would fly the X-20 upon completion. Even though it still just existed on paper, the project was full of potential. By this time, however, Neil was uncertain if he wanted to stay in the Dyna-Soar program. John Glenn had just made his celebrated orbit around the Earth. There was also an announcement that applications would be accepted in preparation for a new space program. Neil decided the time had come to leave the airplane for the spaceship. He sent in his application, and despite arriving a week late, it was processed anyway. On September 17, 1962 Neil Armstrong moved to Houston, Texas where he was proclaimed America’s newest astronaut.

Less than seven years after Neil Armstrong was inducted into the space program, he had become the nation’s foremost astronaut. His first experience at command came in February 1965 when he was named the commander for Gemini V’s backup crew. He found it incredibly valuable since he could use the information to advise Mission Control about conditions during the flight. His first foray into space came in March 1966 as the commander of Gemini VIII. He intended to fly fifty-five orbits, but due to mechanical problems, he only completed seven. It did not matter to his family and friends back in Wapakoneta, Ohio. To them he was still a hero. It was not the last time he was regarded as a celebrity. In October 1966 he embarked on a tour of Latin America, and in almost every country he visited, hundreds of people lined the streets and cheered him. Upon his return home, he joined the burgeoning Apollo program and served as the backup commander for Apollo 9. Then in July 1969 he was named the commander of Apollo 11. He expected the mission to be a dress rehearsal for the big event. Instead, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon with the proclamation, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” He returned to Earth as one of the most celebrated men of all time. He continued to work for NASA and in 1970 served as one of the investigators into the near-disaster aboard Apollo 13. He retired in 1971 and became professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, but he returned to NASA in 1986 at the request of President Ronald Reagan to investigate the Challenger disaster. He died in August 2012, his place in American memory enshrined for all time.

The journey to the moon remains one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments. Once man set foot on the lunar surface, it seemed like anything was possible. That achievement did not happen overnight, however. Success depended on the vision, commitment and courage of men like Neil Armstrong. While many only know the story of his final triumph, Neil Armstrong’s entire life stands as a testament to those brave and dedicated souls who willingly embarked on the adventure to open space, “the final frontier.”


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3 responses to “Pushing the Envelope

  1. Jake, another well written history lesson on a hero we all know, but didn’t really know until you educated us! Thank you for all that you do to make us all smarter.

  2. Nah Hampshah

    Again – nice one Jake Man! Enlightening to hear the whole story.


  3. Jack Showers

    Great read Jake, Thanks!!

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