By now, the passing of Neil Armstrong is well known. He died on Saturday, August 25, 2012, at age 82 from complications following heart surgery three weeks earlier.
I was sad and upset at the same time, and both for the same reason. The first man to walk on the Moon did not live to see a new generation of humans return there. It should not have been this way.
My great fascination while growing up was not Apollo, but the X-15 – a hypersonic research aircraft which Armstrong flew. Thus, I was able to follow as he switched from being an NACA/NASA research pilot to an astronaut on the Gemini and Apollo missions. (He also flew in the Korean War. As a research pilot , he flew of variations of the X-1 along with a whole host of other aircraft.)
He largely stayed out of the public limelight, and did not cash in on his fame. Thankfully, he was not as reclusive as Howard Hughes, but continued to educate young engineers and was involved in certain NASA review panels. Only in recent years, did he become more visible, largely driven by the chaos that ensued following the cancellation of the Constellation program by the Obama administration.
Some of us were fortunate enough to hear Neil speak at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, in Palo Alto early this year. He was there because he was one of the first suborbital researchers, flying the X-15. It was great to hear him talk about the X-15 research program, its goals, and what it achieved. … And then he was like one of us, trying to learn more about how to move suborbital research forward.
A couple of months before his passing, I had publicly (i.e., on Facebook) regressed to using a pocket protector). I had too many pens. (Why? I just do; no good reason.) I was thus taken by surprise to read this comment by Neil Armstrong to the National Press Club in 2000:
“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”
It was stunning how many of my friends identified with that statement, although to my knowledge, I’m the only one with the pocket protector.
As I said, I was sad and upset at the same time. I summed up my reaction to his passing as follows:
“Naval aviator. X-15 research pilot. First man on the Moon. Can we please go back now?”