Everyone said he probably wouldn’t respond. Neil Armstrong had been asked so many questions over the years, one could hardly blame him if he never wanted to answer another one ever again. (What a nightmare to be asked over and over: “What was it liiike?”) So when I sent out a request for an interview that would be used in an Apollo 11 moon landing oral history I wrote for Texas Monthly’s July 2009 issue, I didn’t expect a reply.
I was surprised, a few weeks later, when this note arrived in my email inbox:
Mr. Armstrong believes that society is ill-served by extemporaneous responses to interview questions and believes the recent election activity confirms his apprehensions. He has not given such interviews for many years… Although we are currently besieged by similar requests from a number of publications in several countries, he would be willing to answer a couple of appropriate questions by e-mail.
Hell yes, I screamed.
Those who were familiar with Armstrong gave me a few pointers to help me formulate my questions. “Remember, he’s an engineer,” one person told me. “Whatever you do, do not ask him any questions with the word ‘feel’ in them.” I immediately deleted two such questions. Still, when Armstrong’s response came back in April 2009, I had to laugh. I read the thoughtful answers, the long technical explanations, and stopped at the seventh question, “Can you describe your adjustment to the limelight after you came back home?” Nada. No answer. I pictured him thinking, “Waitress! Check, please!”
No doubt, many others have had similar experiences over the years. But my favorite Neil Armstrong story from that 2009 oral history came from Christopher Kraft, flight director of NASA’s first manned space mission:
We were at the Cape, it was probably several weeks before the flight and we were going over some charts, as I remember. And George [Low] asked [Armstrong], ‘Have you been thinking about what you are going to say when you get out of the spacecraft?’ And Armstrong said, ‘Yes.’ [long pause] He wouldn’t go any further than that! And George had it drop it there; it wasn’t worth asking. He asked, and got an answer.
I used many of Armstrong’s answers in my article, but I wasn’t able to include the last answer, even though it’s a great quote. Read the entire exchange here:
How do you see Apollo 11’s place in aviation history, i.e., does it extend back to the first flight, in your opinion, or do you think of it specifically as space flight?
Progress in flight has to be the product of those individuals who had a passion for leaving the surface of the Earth. From Daedalus to the Montgolfier brothers to Lilienthal to the Wright Brothers to Tsiolkovsky and Goddard. Space flight was made possible by two twentieth-century inventions: the liquid fueled rocket and the electronic computer. But it was the aeronautical industry that developed space flight. The space expeditions, manned and unmanned, now and in the future, are and will be integral components of the continuum of flight.
In retrospect, in what ways did your training as a test pilot prepare you (or not) for Apollo 11?
In both test flying and space flight, the crews are doing things that have never been done before. Because there is no one who has done it, there is no one who can completely train them. There are, however, many qualified individuals who can provide useful and applicable knowledge.
In flight test the crews learn to find the best possible information wherever and from whomever it can be found. Preparation is the key to success in flight test and proved to be mandatory in space flight.
Can you tell me about your exchange with Guenter Wendt as you entered the command module before Apollo 11 liftoff?
Guenter always had a little gift and a few encouraging words. Of course, inside our suits with the helmet visors closed, our communication was limited. He gave us a ‘key to the moon’ and I gave him a ‘ticket’ for an interplanetary flight.
Our suit technician would complete his final checks of our suit pneumatic and electrical connections, one of our ‘backup’ crew would double check all of the control and switch positions that we could not reach. Then exit the spacecraft.
Finally, Guenter’s guys would do the final hatch closure. At that point, we hoped that no late occurring system problems would cause an abort requiring us to go through all those procedures in reverse!
Some folks in