Badass of the Week.

Neil Armstrong

"There can be no great accomplishment without risk."

Here's a fun fact: As Neil Armstrong was descending the Lunar Module towards the surface of the Moon, hurtling 50,000 feet towards the rocky surface of an alien landscape at a little over 60 miles an hour, the entire instrumentation panel failed on him. And by "failed", I mean it didn't just die, I mean it flipped it's shit and went totally insane HAL 9000-style, screaming at the Apollo 11 mission commander with alarms and klaxons and warnings about how there was too much telemetric data coming in for the state-of-the-art Lunar Module computer to process and holy shit pork chop sandwiches oh my god WTF we're all gonna die. Undeterred by the ominous beacons of his impending fiery mutilation, Neil Armstrong did what pretty much nobody in their right minds would have done.

He turned the computer off.

So here was Neil Armstrong, harnessed into a cramped little aluminum coffin packed with all the technological computing power of a TI-85 solar-powered calculator, fighting the controls trying to manually place a two-passenger missile packed with jet fuel on the surface of an interstellar object nobody has ever attempted to land on before, and to do it delicately enough that it doesn't crash, fall over, explode, or otherwise bring about the brutally-violent deaths of everyone inside. The Lunar Module had just twenty seconds of fuel left in the tank, and only had one control – Activate Thruster – meaning Armstrong's job was like playing Atari Moon Lander on an Etch-a-Sketch while inside the trunk of a car doing 270 down the Autobahn where any slight fuck-up sends you catapulting through a steel wall and subsequently ripped apart by the vacuum of space like those guys in Event Horizon.

It was an impossible task, only marginally possible for the greatest pilots and video game enthusiasts the world has to offer. He'd have one shot at it -- and his actions would either make world history or bring about his terrible premature death.

We, of course, all know how the story ended:


The first man to set foot on any celestial object other than Earth was born Captain Kirk style on a small farm in middle America. Born in Ohio in August 1930 and growing up during the Great Depression will teach a man some shit about himself, and Neil Armstrong learned values like the importance of hard work, busting his ass for 40 cents an hour as a stock clerk in a pharmacy before and after school. When this guy wasn't smoking Math tests like Cuban cigars or playing baritone in a presumably-awesome jazz band called the Mississippi Moonshiners, he became an Eagle Scout, helped work the farm, and got so fucking pumped about aircraft that he built a homemade wind tunnel out of shit he found around town so he could test out custom model airplane designs he made by combining multiple kits together into some badass Frankenstein aircraft shit. He earned his pilot's license on his 16th birthday, and before this kid could even legally drive he was working a day job test-flying 65-horsepower two-seater prop planes that had just been repaired – taking these formerly-busted little wooden planes out on joyrides to see if they could be piloted without falling apart and crashing back down to earth. He'd got the job by default because nobody else wanted it, and ended up logging so many hours as a teenage test pilot that the Navy offered him a scholarship to study Aeronautical Engineering at Purdue (provided he commit to spending a couple years as a naval aviator when he was done).

Neil Armstrong did two years at Purdue, then transferred to NAS Pensacola, earning his wings at the age of 20 and shipping off to the Korean War, where he was the youngest kid in his squadron. He flew 78 combat missions in a Grumman F9F Panther, an early model jet fighter, where he earned three Air Medals, evaded capture and was rescued after being shot down behind enemy lines, and survived an emergency crash-landing on the deck of the USS Essex. When all that was done, he said fuck it, I'll go back and finish my degree and marry a beauty queen sorority girl because WTF else do I have going on.

Like he owns the place.

While the military thing wasn't really doing it for him, flying was in Neil Armstrong's blood. After school he went to Edwards Air Force Base outside Los Angeles and spent the next seven years working as a research test pilot – which is basically the exact same thing he was doing when he was 16, only instead of flying rickety wooden propeller planes he was hurtling through the stratosphere at three times the speed of sound in the cockpit of an experimental test fighter that was packed with enough rocket fuel to vaporize sheet metal. As a research test pilot, this self-proclaimed "white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer" (he hated working out and once said, "I believe that every human being has a finite number of heartbeats, and I don't plan to waste any of mine running around doing exercises.") not only had the exciting/terrifying job of testing out wildly-unstable jets capable of shredding the sound barrier like a cheese grater dismembering a tomato, but then when he was done he got to write a report about what was awesome about the plane and what needed to be fixed.

Neil Armstrong logged over 3,000 hours at the controls of over 200 aircraft ranging from canvas gliders that only used a dashboard compass for navigation to supersonic experimental jet fighters with gigantic rocket engines grafted onto the fuselage, piloting anything, any time, anywhere, regardless of how likely it was to blow up in his face and kill him. When this dude wasn't ripping off hellaciously-righteous loop-de-loops in Chuck Yeager's X-1B, streaking through the stratosphere at Mach 5.7 at an altitude of 207,000 feet in the cockpit of an X-15 hypersonic rocket-powered suborbital jet fighter, or testing out aircraft that ended up being the basis for fighters like the F-14 and the F-18, he was flying as the "chase plane", following some other nutcase in a human-propelled death-missile and making notes about whether or not he thought that poor bastard in front of him was about to explode in a cloud of jet fuel and awesomeness due to some minor technical oversight in the structural design of the machine he was piloting.

Yes, that is a very interesting point.
But, in my defense, fuck you, I'm Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong's interesting skillset as both a hardcore twitch-reflex hotshot pilot and a ultimate mega-engineering nerd got him tapped in 1962 to become the first civilian to join the American astronaut program. With his fat salary of $27,000 a year, Armstrong underwent intense training to prepare him for what he was about to face.

In 1966 Neil Armstrong became the first U.S. civilian in space when he commanded the Gemini 8 mission – a mission that would attempt the first-ever spaceship-to-spaceship docking operation. Armstrong masterfully maneuvered the Gemini 8 capsule alongside some random unmanned rocket in orbit around the earth, linked the two vessels up, then almost became mildly annoyed when suddenly one of Gemini's thrusters activated, sending the two linked spaceships into an out-of-control spiraling series of endless space barrel rolls. Armstrong, never one to panic no matter how insanely the mission is going down in flames, simply flipped a switch, undocked with the space junk, turned on his re-entry controls (while still in space!), righted the roll, calmly informed Houston that the mission was coming home early, and masterfully dropped his tiny capsule from outer space into the Pacific Ocean.

He wore sunglasses while doing this. He was just that fucking cool.

You had to try really hard to throw something at Neil Armstrong that would generate any kind of emotional response. I don't really remember where I saw this, but my favorite Neil Armstrong story goes like this: One morning, Buzz Aldrin or Michael Collins (I can't remember which) came into the office to get started on work. Neil was sitting at his desk, working on some paperwork, and just looked up for a second to say "good morning" before going back to his writing. Buzz/Michael went to the NASA shift lead to ask what was going on that day, and was told by the NASA techs that the missions were scrapped today because about an hour ago Neil Armstrong was running a test flight on the Lunar Landing Module when it's equipment failed and it plummeted to the earth and exploded in a giant fireball. Neil had almost died, but had somehow managed to eject a mere 200 feet from the ground and parachuted to safety with only minor injuries. When Buzz/Michael protested that he'd just seen Neil two seconds ago, the NASA guy was like, "Oh, yeah… he's filling out the after-mission report."

So you can see why he was pretty much the perfect man to be sitting at the controls of the Lunar Module (yes, the fully-realized version of the vehicle that had almost blown him into blood vapor in the previous paragraph) as it attempted the first-ever human descent to the Moon. In July, 1969, the 38-year old Armstrong was selected as mission commander on Apollo 11, strapped to a ridiculously-gigantic Saturn V rocket, and catapulted into space by a massive controlled explosion that propelled him from 0 to 243,000 miles an hour in two seconds. He spent ten days in space, landed the Lunar Module on Manual mode, and spent two and a half hours bouncing around on the moon collecting rocks and shit while one-fifth of the world's population watched slack-jawed on their TV sets. While they were out there, Neil and Buzz Aldrin planted a U.S. flag, a plaque commemorating international peace, and a monument to dead U.S. and Soviet astronauts/cosmonauts, talked to Richard Nixon on a radiophone, and planted a reflector dish in the Sea of Tranquility that allowed some nerds in Austin Texas to shoot a laser into space and measure the exact distance from the Earth to the Moon, mostly so that people throughout the world would know that this dude traveled 232,271 miles FOR SCIENCE.

"The landing approach was, by far, the most difficult and challenging part of the flight. Walking on the lunar surface was very interesting, but it was something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable… Pilots take no special joy in walking: pilots like flying. Pilots generally take pride in a good landing, not in getting out of the vehicle."

Neil and Buzz got the LM back off the ground, rejoined the Command Module, hurtled through the Earth's atmosphere at 35,000 feet per second, and returned home to a massive parade in their honor. Armstrong met the Queen, the Pope, the President, and the Shah of Iran (there's an interesting urban legend that Armstrong heard the Muslim call to prayer while in space and immediately converted to Islam, but he repeatedly denied this story), received medals of honor from 17 different countries, and also had a couple airports, streets, and even a piece of the Moon's geography named after him.

Fairly certain that he was never gonna top that, Neil Armstrong retired from astronauting a year later and bought a farm in Ohio. That was going well for a while, but in 1979 he got his wedding ring stuck in the gears of a grain tractor (Neil Armstrong was still working a farm!) and had the thing rip his entire finger off, but in true Neil Friggin' Armstrong fashion he just calmly walked over, picked up the finger, put it on ice, and drove to the hospital to get it re-attached. He went on to work as a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, was an administrator at NASA, ran his own aerospace tech company, and once sued his barber for selling a lock of his hair on eBay for $3,000 (Armstrong told him to either return the hair or donate the $3k to charity… the guy donated).

Any time anyone ever asked him about him being the first human to ever set foot on the Moon, Neil Armstrong would just say that it was the culmination of over a decade of hard work by over 400,000 people and leave it at that.

He died last Sunday, August 25, 2012, at the age of 82.


NASA Biography

NY Times Obit

The Guardian

The Aircraft and Spacecraft of Neil Armstrong



Aldrin, Buzz. Reaching for the Moon. HarperCollins, 2005.

Hamblin, Dora Jane. "Neil Armstrong Refuses to Waste Any Heartbeats." LIFE. July 4, 1969.

Hansen, James R. First Man. Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Nelson, Craig. Rocket Men. Penguin, 2010.


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