Where were you on July 20, 1969? Certain days stay in your mind forever. The day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon was one of those for me. It was the day I discovered it was okay to be different. Do you remember where you were for the first moon landing? For many of my friends they wanted to grow up to be astronauts. Me, I wanted to lead the next great adventure to the moon and beyond. For a child who wore braces on his legs and thick glasses, I had to admit I would probably never be an astronaut. Even at an early age I realized even if I could get my physical act together I would never be without glasses. For thousands like me Neal Armstrong made it cool to be an engineer.
Neil Armstrong was a serving leader in ways that even he couldn’t imagine. When you work in advanced technologies you get to hang around some cool technologies and sometimes some great pilots and sometimes even astronauts. What made Neil different was his humility and authenticity. You don’t find many fighter and test pilots with humility. In many ways it keeps them on the edge. Several have told me it keeps them alive.
Astronauts are a different type. The early ones had to have courage to climb into a capsule the size a small car and ride it into space and back. The Apollo Command Module was a truncated cone (frustum) measuring 10 feet 7 inches (3.2 m) tall and having a diameter of 12 feet 10 inches (3.9 m) across the base. In one of my earliest adventures at NASA I was given an opportunity to climb into a command module and was struck by the size of the module. It was small. I have more space in my SUV. These were brave men who climbed in atop a blazing candle known as the Saturn V.
My first experience of Neil Armstrong’s legacy was when I got to work with several teams of engineers who had worked on the space program over the years. They shared a sense of pride and accomplishment that was unmatched among our peers. In an era before TQM and Six Sigma these men had designed spacecraft that would take man to the moon and back with less processing power than in todays IPhones.
Neil was a US Navy pilot. He flew 78 combat missions in Korea. He also tested X15 high speed planes as well. One of my favorite quotes from Neil was, “Pilots take no special joy in walking. Pilots like flying.” I think it says how he saw his life. On Apollo 11 he took over the lunar module to land it manually because they were running out of fuel and he wasn’t comfortable with the decisions the computer was making. This was the second time in his career as an astronaut that his piloting skills saved his missions. His courage under pressure and his leadership helped his missions succeed. It was why he was chosen to lead Apollo 11.
You can take the measure of a man by how he acts when he doesn’t have to. Neil didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. He had a Midwest sense of his role in the history. When Neil went on tours after his historic mission, he would always remind people of all the people who helped him get to the moon and back. He shared stories behind the scenes that would highlight the contributions of others to the space program. I think he was the right man at the right time in history. His perspectives on the role of the space program in America’s place in the world were fascinating. He provided a strong advocate for education and engineering. He returned to the classroom after his career to help shape a new generation of engineers at the University of Cincinnati in aerospace engineering.
He had a great sense of humor and a smile that was contagious. His humor was droll but spot on. He could bring a smile to a little boy’s face and could bring a chuckle to the people who worked with him during challenging times. As you can imagine, there were many challenges during the race for the moon. A perfect example of his humor was “Geologists have a saying – rocks remember. “ Name a scientist who doesn’t love a little rock humor. I will remember his smile and his comfortable presence. After the failure of Apollo 1, NASA needed a confident leader to help regain their footing and reach the moon before the end of the decade. Neil Armstrong was one of the people they turned to to put the Apollo program back on track. Neil and his team of astronauts were up to the challenge.
As he entered his final years, he came back as an advocate for the space program. He outlined the benefits the space program provided our nation for technological leadership around the world. As the space program was undergoing massive cuts he became an outspoken spokesman for those benefits that a strong space program provided our country and the world.
I’m not sure we will ever see a man like Neil Armstrong again. He was a hero in every way a hero is judged. He was soft spoken, he served his country in both war and peace and he set a standard for providing generations of adventurers and engineers a vision of what’s possible for mankind. He set a standard that heroes reach for but few achieve.
I would like to leave you with a final thought from Neil Armstrong. “I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.” It’s a perfect example of a serving leader and a man who changed our world forever. Rest in peace, Neil. For all the people you touched and all the dreams you inspired. The Eagle has landed and you have taken your permanent place in the heavens. When I look at the moon I think of you and the many things you did to inspire me and future generations of serving leaders, engineers and space travelers.