I was only 8 years old on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old commander of Apollo 11, descended the cramped lunar module Eagle’s ladder with hefty backpack and bulky spacesuit to become the first human on the moon. Because it was summertime, school done for the year, watching all things Apollo 11—the nearly 200-hour galactic journey from Florida to splashdown in the Pacific—became my obsession. I didn’t miss a moment of the long, nerve-wracking chain of events that led to the Eagle creating the lunar base Tranquility (named in advance by Armstrong). The Brinkleys were living in Perrysburg, Ohio, and we considered Armstrong—from nearby Wapakoneta—the honorary hometown boy. It was stunning that this local kid who grew up on a farm with no electricity was leading America into the brave new world of lunar exploration. When Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” we were incommensurably awed at the greatness of it all. Not Armstrong. “Pilots take no particular joy in walking,” he once said in full buzzkill mode. “Pilots like flying.”
For years I longed to hear Armstrong describe what it was like to contemplate Earth from 238,900 miles away. Former Space Center director George Abbey 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. Could I get him to open up about the experience?
I originally wrote Armstrong in the early 1990s to request an interview about his Korean War service. He had flown 78 combat missions—was even hit with antiaircraft fire over enemy territory—and I wanted to write a book about it, a Band of Brothers about the flyboys of “the Forgotten War” who were assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Essex. I got a polite postcard rejection: “No thanks, but I’ll keep you in mind.”
It wasn’t until several years later that NASA asked me to conduct its official oral history of the “First Man.” I was surprised and honored to get a chance to interview him—and thrilled when the date was set for Sept. 19, 2001. Then I saw the horrifying collapse of the World Trade Center towers on TV. Like everyone else, I was grief-stricken. And I was also sure my Armstrong interview would get nixed. But it didn’t play out that way. To my utter astonishment, a NASA director telephoned me that Armstrong, no matter what, never missed a scheduled rendezvous. He was going to travel from Cincinnati to Houston to do the oral history in spite of the post-terrorist-attack airport madness. Armstrong journeying to Texas days after 9/11 certainly wasn’t the phoenix-like Chuck Yeager, emerging from the pages of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in a glorious dust cloud of triumph. But his effort was impressive. The post-9/11 skies were largely shut to commercial aircraft, but Armstrong, whose own boyhood hero was aviator Charles Lindbergh, stubbornly refused to cancel an appointment that he dreaded. It was a matter of honor.
The interview started out well, with a question about Lindbergh. He raved about the famed pilot of the Spirit of St. Louis. He told me about his personal correspondence with Lucky Lindy (a trove that is still off-limits to scholars). It dawned on me that perhaps the fear of the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Syndrome had driven Armstrong underground, had turned him into a quasi-recluse. As an impermeable skeptic, he trusted neither celebrity nor crass capitalism. But the oral history was tracking. And when I turned to the Korean War, mentioning novelist James Michener’s book The Bridges at Toko-Ri, he became surprisingly effusive. “Michener was on our ship,” he said. “I think he went on three tours, two or three tours, you know, at four or five weeks at a crack, and would just sit around the wardroom in the evening or in the ready room in the daytime and listen to guys tell the actual stories.”
Watch Neil Armstrong's iconic moon landing.
What I was most curious about was why Armstrong, a top U.S. Navy test pilot, flying the most advanced aircraft in the world, would want to join the astronaut corps in 1962, which included chimpanzees and monkeys. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “I was flying the X-15 and I had the understanding or belief that if I continued, I would be the chief pilot of that project ... Then there was this other project down at Houston, [the] Apollo program ... I can’t tell you now just why in the end I made the decision I did, but I consider it as fortuitous that I happened to pick one that was a winning horse.”
I asked Armstrong if he ever hoped to go back to space like John Glenn had done in 1998 on board Space Shuttle Discovery STS-95. “If they offered me command of a Mars mission,” he said, “I’d jump at it.” If Armstrong had any zealotry in him it was Mars-related. But he understood that with the huge debt, congressional appropriation for a manned Mars mission wasn’t in the cards. “I think it’s doable now,” he said, “but very expensive and probably not within reasonable expectation of being able to be budgeted in the near future ... I guess the great hope is that we have a breakthrough someplace that would make that problem much less awesome.”
I asked him about the half-dozen Ohio towns he lived in, the art of landing planes on aircraft carriers at night, the altitude range of X-15s, his docking problems during the Gemini 8 mission, and being a test pilot at the High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California. On how tough and bizarre the NASA endurance tests were for going to the moon, he said, “I don’t think the community of flight medicine and flight physiology knew very much what they needed to do at that point. There were widespread predictions that humans could not survive in space, for a variety of reasons, both physical, physiological, and mental and psychological, all kinds of reasons ... They did every test known to man. [Laughter] Not necessarily fun. Survivable.”
These programs were primitive, and the tragedy of the SA-204 Apollo 1 fire spoke to the dangers of being an astronaut. Armstrong lost two of his best astro-buddies—Virgil I. Grissom and Edward H. White—in that Florida fireball of 1967. Talking about them was the only time his voice quivered even for a moment that day. “I’d known Gus for a long time. Ed White and I bought some property together and split it,” he recalled. “I built my house on one half of it, and he built his house on the other. We were good friends, neighbors. Some very traumatic times. You know, I suppose you’re much more likely to accept the loss of a friend in flight, but it really hurt to lose them in a ground test. That was an indictment of ourselves. I mean, [it happened] because we didn’t do the right thing somehow. That’s doubly, doubly traumatic.”
After hours of interrogation, I finally lurched into the spiritual realm. I offered that any amount of rigorous NASA manned-spaceflight training had to be worth it, in the end, to just see our beautiful planet from space. Armstrong glared approval. Pointing to the nearby photo book—The Infinite Journey: Eyewitness Accounts of NASA and the Age of Space—he said, “You can take a picture of the Grand Canyon, but it’s not the same as standing on the rim and looking down there. I think it’s the same here. A picture does a great job, but it’s not nearly like being there.”
That was my door-barely-cracked opening. There was feeling lurking in his answer. “I can’t imagine,” I continued. “Did a calm come over you when you saw the Earth like that? Is it almost a religious experience?”
“I don’t know how to answer that,” he snapped. “It probably affects different people in different ways. It is spectacular, and I think everyone is touched by it when they have the experience, but I don’t know what goes on in other people’s minds.”
Armstrong, living up to reputation, wasn’t an expansive conversationalist. There was, however, an attractive slyness about his uncommunicative persona; he had an admirable ability to immediately see the pitfall in any question and punt. Full of stoic reluctance, he didn’t really want to be the American hero, regaling future generations with swashbuckling tales of his galactic triumphs. Immune to fame, he was merely a dutiful pilot and Purdue University-trained engineer who performed his NASA tasks competently. This wasn’t a pose. What mattered to him was old-fashioned public service, iron discipline, being the best at a chosen trade, and never making a mistake. Whatever the moon meant to Armstrong personally, in the end, wasn’t available for the picking. His opaqueness, however, shouldn’t be misconstrued as aloofness. He correctly understood that over-marketing, bragging, or expressive emotion was beneath the magnitude of his feat.
Even getting Armstrong to explain how he decided to utter his poetic “That’s one small step” line to inaugurate his moonwalk was difficult. He seemed determined to minimize it. I asked him if the words were premeditated. “Yes,” he said. “I thought about it after landing, and because we had a lot of other things to do, it was not something that I really concentrated on but just something that was kind of passing around subliminally or in the background. But it, you know, was a pretty simple statement, talking about stepping off something. Why, it wasn’t a very complex thing. It was what it was.”
To Armstrong, constantly speaking about Apollo 11 only diminished the magic. That’s why he worked overtime to avoid notice, living a quiet life in Indian Hill, Ohio. “I recognize that I’m portrayed as staying out of the public eye, but from my perspective it doesn’t seem that way, because I do so many things, I go so many places, I give so many talks, I write so many papers that, from my point of view, it seems like I don’t know how I could do more. But I recognize that from another perspective ... it seems like I’m not doing anything. But I can’t change that.” He turned down honorary doctorates from Ivy League schools but accepted one from the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. “It’s very difficult,” he said as rationale, “to turn down Sister Frances Marie.”
When I asked Armstrong why the American people seemed to be less NASA-crazed in the 21st century, 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.”
Toward the end of the interview, I again tried to get Armstrong to be more expressive about his lunar accomplishment. I had long pictured him in the sultry evenings at Cape Canaveral leading up to the Apollo 11 launch, looking up at the glowball moon and knowing that he would soon be the first human to break the shackles of Earth. “As the day 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?!’”
“No,” he said. “I never did that.”