Neil Armstrong: ‘Reluctant hero’ who delivered most incredible moment of human achievement

American astronaut and aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon
American astronaut and aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon
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Historian GORDON LUCY looks at the life and Scots-Irish ancestry of the first man to walk on the Moon

The space race was in large measure an expression of Cold War rivalry between the USA and USSR.

Neil Armstrong (left) with fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins (centre) and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin

Neil Armstrong (left) with fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins (centre) and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin

The Soviets stole a march on the United States in October 1957 when they launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth.

Americans feared that they were falling behind the Soviet Union in terms of science and technology. They were particularly unnerved by the possible military implications. Had the Soviets superior technology in the delivery of nuclear warheads?

Although the US Congress established Nasa (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1958 to explore and use space for the benefit ‘of all mankind’, in truth it was formed to meet the challenge of the USSR’s almost wholly illusionary threat to the United States’ leadership in science and technology.

On May 25 1961 President John F Kennedy announced: ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth.’

From the early 1960s until the early 1970s Congress essentially gave Nasa blank cheques to achieve Kennedy’s goal. In the mid 1960s Nasa received over 4% of the Federal budget. Today it is allocated a mere 0.4% of the Federal budget.

On July 20 1969 Neil A Armstrong and Edwin E Aldrin realised Kennedy’s goal. At 10.56 pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time), with more than half a billion people watching on television, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of Eagle (the lunar module) and proclaimed: ‘That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.’

Then he was joined by ‘Buzz’ Aldrin who described the lunar surface as ‘magnificent desolation’. They explored the surface for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs.

They left behind an American flag, a patch honouring the crew of Apollo 1 (who had perished in a fire in January 1967), and a plaque on one of Eagle’s legs. It read: ‘Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.’

Armstrong and Aldrin blasted off and docked with Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, in Columbia (the command module).

On July 24 President Nixon welcomed the three astronauts home with the observation, ‘This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation’.

Between 1969 and 1972 Nasa landed six teams on the surface of the moon but Neil A Armstrong and Edwin E Aldrin were the first.

Neil Armstrong was of mixed German, Scottish and Scots-Irish ancestry. He was born on August 5 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

As a boy he was an enthusiastic Boy Scout, becoming an Eagle Scout. On his way to the moon he greeted the Scout movement and among the very few personal items he took to the moon and back was a World Scout Badge.

At the age of five or six he experienced his first flight. Thereafter he was completely hooked on flying. He studied aeronautical engineering at Perdue University. Serving as a navy fighter pilot in Korea, he flew 78 combat missions.

After the war he became a civilian test pilot and was widely acknowledged to be one of the best, if not the best. In 1962 he was chosen as an astronaut and four years later he commanded Gemini 8.

Even before his walk on the moon’s surface, he raised an issue that would not become fashionable for another 50 years – the thinness and fragility of the Earth’s atmosphere – and warned of the need to conserve it.

Subsequently Neil unfairly acquired the reputation of being a recluse. His family accurately described him as ‘a reluctant hero’. He was a modest and unassuming individual. While he delivered speeches occasionally, he rarely gave interviews and strenuously avoided the limelight. Unlike others, he never sought to take advantage of his fame. According to his wife Janet, he was embarrassed that he received all the acclaim for the efforts of tens of thousands of people.

While there is no dispute that Armstrong is descended from Border Reivers, James R Hansen, Armstrong’s authorised biographer, has challenged the hitherto prevailing view that his Reiver ancestors had settled in Co Fermanagh. He is adamant that Neil’s ancestors emigrated directly to America sometime between 1736 and 1743 and that no Neil Armstrong progenitor ever settled in Ulster.

In 1972, Armstrong visited Langholm, the power base of the Armstrong clan, in the Scottish Borders and was made the first freeman of the burgh and declared the town his home but only after the Justice of the Peace read from an unrepealed 400-year-old law (which he chose to disregard) that required him to hang any Armstrong found in the town. He also visited nearby Gilnockie Tower, perhaps the finest examples of a 16th century Scots tower house and stronghold of the Armstrong clan.

Even if Neil Armstrong wasn’t an Ulster-Scot, he certainly had a very Ulster-Scots perspective on history, a subject which was close to his heart. In the ‘Reader’s Digest’ of April 1975 he explained: ‘America means opportunity. It started that way. The early settlers came to the New World for the opportunity to worship in keeping with their conscience, and to build a new future on the strength of their work … they discovered a new life with freedom to achieve their individual goals.’

The late Lord Laird of Artigarvan, a great admirer of Neil Armstrong, could not have put it any better himself.

Neil Armstrong died on August 25 2012. President Obama described him as ‘among the greatest of American heroes’ and added ‘when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten’.

‘Buzz’ Aldrin called him ‘a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew’ and expressed disappointment that they would not be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing together.