Moonshot: Kennedy, Armstrong, and the Race to Land on the Moon

It was nothing less than a nation’s patriotic determination to fulfill President Kennedy’s brazen pledge that got us to the moon 50 years ago.

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This is an abridged version of an article that appears in our July/August 2019 issue. Subscribe to the magazine to read it in its entirety. 

For years I longed to hear Neil Armstrong describe what it was like to contemplate Earth from 238,900 miles away, to explain, in his own words, the thermodynamics affecting motion through the atmosphere both in launching and reentry. Former Johnson Space Center director George Abbey of Houston (now a colleague of mine at Rice University) once told me that many NASA astronauts felt that looking at Earth was akin to a religious experience. Did Armstrong agree? What did it feel like, emotionally, spiritually, to stand on the surface of the moon? Armstrong’s reticence was legendary. He was known to be media shy.

It wasn’t until eight years later that NASA afforded me the privilege of interviewing Neil Armstrong for its official Oral History Project. I was surprised at and honored by the chance to speak in depth with the “First Man” — and thrilled when the date was set for September 19, 2001, in Clear Lake City, Texas. Then, eight days in advance of the big meeting, I saw the horrifying collapse of the World Trade Center towers on TV and listened to accounts of the two other disastrous airplane hijackings. A pervasive sense of gloom and urgency enveloped America. Like everyone else, I felt shock and repugnance at the ghastly scenes of our nation under attack, feelings that still burn to this day.

I was sure my Armstrong interview would be canceled. But it didn’t play out that way. To my utter astonishment, a NASA director telephoned me to say that Armstrong, no matter what, never missed a scheduled appointment. His effort to keep his word was legendary. The post-9/11 skies were largely shut to commercial aircraft, but Armstrong, whose own boyhood hero was flier Charles Lindbergh, refused to cancel his appointment at the Johnson Space Center, piloting his own plane from his adopted hometown of Cincinnati. It was a matter of honor, part of Armstrong’s “onward code.”

The six-hour interview went well. When I asked Armstrong why the American people seemed to be less NASA crazed in the 21st century than back during John F. Kennedy’s White House years, he had a thoughtful response. “Oh, I think it’s predominantly the responsibility of the human character,” he said. “We don’t have a very long attention span, and needs and pressures vary from day to day, and we have a difficult time remembering a few months ago, or we have a difficult time looking very far into the future. We’re very ‘now’ oriented. I’m not surprised by that. I think we’ll always be in space, but it will take us longer to do the new things than the advocates would like, and in some cases, it will take external factors or forces which we can’t control.”

Moments later, I again tried to get Armstrong to loosen up and be more expressive about his lunar accomplishment, to defuse his engineer’s penchant for personal detachment. I had long pictured him in the sultry evenings at Cape Canaveral leading up to the Apollo 11 launch, looking up at the luminous moon and knowing that he and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin would soon be the first humans to visit a place beyond Earth. “As the clock was ticking for takeoff, would you every night or most nights, just go out and quietly look at the moon? I mean, did it become something like ‘My goodness?!’” I asked. “No,” he replied. “I never did that.” That was the extent of his romantic notions about the lifeless moon. Neil Armstrong was first and foremost a Navy ­aviator and aerospace engineer, following military orders with his personal best.

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in our July/August 2019 issue. Subscribe to the magazine to read it in its entirety. 

Featured image: NASA

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