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An ENgineering First

By Pierre Home-Douglas

He is best known today for his eight-year stint as a NASA astronaut, culminating with his “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in July 1969. But Neil Alden Armstrong’s curriculum vitae states the 73-year-old had one career before he was an astronaut, and one long after: aeronautical engineer. “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” Armstrong told the National Press Club in February 2000, “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.”

“Most of the public doesn’t realize how important being an engineer was in his life,” says Auburn University professor James Hansen. “The fact is that Neil has long thought of himself, first and foremost, as an engineer.”

Hansen is currently writing the authorized biography of Armstrong, entitled First Man. Scheduled for completion this fall, the book seems destined to thrust Armstrong back into the public’s attention, something he has assiduously avoided for the past three decades, turning down countless requests for interviews and offers for him to capitalize on his fame as the first man on the moon. The film rights have already been bought by Clint Eastwood.

Long before the job of astronaut was even invented, Armstrong had his eyes set on a career in engineering. He won a Navy scholarship to attend Purdue in 1947. He enrolled in aeronautical engineering. “From an early age, I was fascinated with aeronautics,” Armstrong recently told Prism. “I had hoped to become an airplane designer.” He said his early Navy experience ended up introducing him to a new avenue of exploration: flight testing. “I soon concluded that my interest in it was stronger than my interest in design.”

Luna and Before

Armstrong flew 78 combat missions in Korea with the Navy between 1950 and 1952. After the war he returned to Purdue. He completed his degree in 1955 and accepted a job as a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, forerunner to NASA. For the next seven years, the sandy-haired Armstrong flew more than 200 of the latest, greatest aircraft designs, including the X-15, which he piloted at Mach 5.31 in April 1962 to an altitude of 207,500 feet—almost 40 miles—the closest anyone had come at the time to going into space in a winged craft.

The Ohio native was surrounded by some of the finest flyers in the business, but his biographer figures that Armstrong was the one of the aviators with the real Right Stuff. “The kind of pilot who really contributes to the advancement of aerospace design is a pilot who flew like Neil flew—pilots with an engineering background,” says Hansen. “It’s a more systematic approach, it’s more precise. It’s after data, after knowledge. It’s not after setting records or, to use common parlance, pushing the envelope—not that research pilots like Neil didn’t do that.” Hansen says there’s a lot of truth in the old saw in aeronautics: It’s much easier to make a pilot out of an engineer than an engineer out of a pilot.

Armstrong joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1962. He flew two missions. His first one on Gemini 8 in March 1966 demonstrated his steely coolness under stress. After the spacecraft performed the first-ever docking in space, it started to suddenly rotate end-over-end, spinning as fast as one revolution a second, blurring the crew’s vision and hurtling them dangerously close to unconsciousness. “I’ve got to cage my eyeballs,” Armstrong calmly told fellow astronaut David Scott as he struggled to regain control of the craft. Eventually, he chose a radical solution: to fire the reentry control thrusters. The procedure stabilized the craft and saved the mission—and the two astronauts’ lives.

The flight of Apollo 11, three years later, made Armstrong arguably the most famous man on Earth. More than 600 million people watched on TV as he clambered down the rungs of the Lunar Module and planted his size nine bootprint on the Sea of Tranquillity. “For one priceless moment in the history of man,” President Nixon said in a telephone message to the crew, “all the people of the Earth are one.” The feat remained one of the great achievements of 20th-century science and engineering.

 

Waves in the Sea of Tranquillity

Back home, Armstrong soon tired of a desk job at NASA headquarters and the stifling demands of his newfound fame. Words like “remote,” “taciturn,” and “aloof” were used to describe him. Those who knew him best, colleagues and friends, painted a more complex picture of someone who was not comfortable with the adulation that came with his historic mission, a man of rock-solid integrity who did not want to suffer the fate of Charles Lindbergh, who struggled all his life with the fame that followed his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Armstrong decided to leave NASA. He added a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California to his credentials in 1970. The following year he accepted a post teaching aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. “I had often said I hoped to go back to academia to teach,” Armstrong told Prism. “I had been a teaching assistant at Purdue. The president of the University of Cincinnati had become a friend and he offered exactly the type of faculty position that I thought would be most appropriate for me.” That position was director of the Institute of Science and Medicine, which merged with the Institute of Space Science into the Institute of Applied Interdisciplinary Research. Armstrong became the associate director and Ron Huston became the director. “Neil really didn’t like administrative work—not at all,” Huston states, “so as director, I took care of those details.”

Armstrong taught a couple of courses in aeronautical engineering, in which he says he enjoyed the daily interaction with students most of all. But Armstrong was no ordinary professor. He was a celebrity who couldn’t shake his fame, even in the halls of academe. When he finished teaching his first class he had to run the gauntlet of a hall full of reporters waiting outside. Huston says students regularly stood on top of one another’s shoulders so they could peer through an 8-foot-high window into his classroom. “It was maddening,” he recalls. He adds that Armstrong ended up spending a good part of his day autographing photographs or being waylaid by students who wanted just to be near him. Meanwhile, although he was generally well accepted by his fellow engineering professors, some members of other departments carped about why a man with no Ph.D. was given a faculty position.

Armstrong eventually grew tired of what he told Prism was “the complexity of university governance”—Armstrong-speak for bureaucracy, endless regulations, and campus politics. After eight years, Huston figures “the shine had pretty well worn off,” and Armstrong quit the university on New Year’s Day 1980.

 

Corporate Engineer

Armstrong then entered another phase in his engineering career, serving on the board of numerous companies, including Cinergy Corp., Thiokol Corp. (now Cordant Technologies), and AIL Systems, a Long Island-based defense electronics company, which later merged with EDO Corp., in 2000. Armstrong cites his engineering background as essential to his effectiveness and success in his new role. “Understanding the engineering challenges was fundamental to deciding how to allocate resources and the probability of the success of a potential acquisition,” he told Prism. That knowledge meant that Armstrong was far from a figurehead board member. “Of course, any company would know that having Neil Armstrong on board would lend a certain prestige to their organization,” Hansen says. “But he also was a good contributor. He wouldn’t have gotten on a board if he didn’t feel interested and didn’t feel like he could contribute. There were often highly technical details that came up, and Neil’s engineering background really helped.” Those words were echoed by James Smith in May 2002 when he took over as the new chairman. “Neil’s strong personal involvement was instrumental in the growth of AIL, the success of the EDO/AIL merger, and the continued development of the combined companies,” Smith said.

Today Armstrong divides his time between his home in Indian Hill, a suburb of Cincinnati, and a 200-acre farm in Lebanon, Ohio, which he shares with his wife, Carol Knight. He has two grown sons from a previous marriage.

Although his career as a practicing engineer is over, Armstrong is still deeply concerned about the profession and its successes and failings, and the fact that the industry often isn’t well understood by the general public. “Engineers are dedicated to solving problems and creating new, useful, and efficient things. So should not the world admire and respect them?” Armstrong mused in his speech to the National Press Club. “Answer: only occasionally. Many of our fellow citizens are mistrustful of logic and critical of technocrats, and often with reason.”

Part of the fault, Armstrong said, is engineers themselves. “Engineers are not good communicators. We are mistrusted because we are perceived as being slaves to technology, as technocrats who don’t care a whit about the environment or safety or human values.”

Armstrong flatly rejects those criticisms. “In my experience, engineers aren’t really bad folks. A little focused, maybe too intense for some, but they are as caring and concerned as other segments of our society.” He added, “The fact that their failures are so widely reported is evidence of their rarity.”

 

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.

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