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 mission control have said that astronauts are trained so that if Mission Control said “abort” the astronauts wouldn’t even think twice; they would abort. Do you think you would have thought twice about aborting if the capcom had told you to abort?
I always had enormous respect for the experts in Mission Control. They have a large number of knowledgeable and skilled controllers. They have access to a great deal of reasonably accurate data. The spacecraft crew has reasonably good knowledge about the status of their craft. They have the advantage of ‘being there’, seeing everything ‘up close and personal’, and being attuned to their craft and their situation.
Abort recommendations would not be given lightly. Many abort maneuvers involve considerable risk, particularly those at low altitude over the lunar surface where and abort maneuver would require shutting down the descent engine, exploding pyrotechnic charges to separate the ascent stage from the descent stage, and igniting the ascent engine, all before colliding with the surface.
Ideally, there would be time to coordinate such a decision between Mission Control and the spacecraft. Were that not the case, the Commander would have the obligation to make the decision based the best information available at the time.
Some people give a shorthand version of your landing and say you “eyeballed” the altitude. But it sounds like you had an equation you used, something you called “barnyard math.” Can you describe how you were able to calculate and track the time at which the LM would reach the surface?
‘Barnyard math’ was used during the initial phase of the powered descent. On Earth, sea level and mountaintop heights are known. On the moon, the height of the surface above the moon’s equivalent of mean sea level was far from accurate. Earth based radar information could provide accurate knowledge of the lunar module’s height above the center of the moon, but there was a good deal of uncertainty about the actual height of lunar module above the surface. We were required to be within approximately 5,000 feet of our 50,000 feet reference altitude for our descent guidance system to converge to a solution.
We knew our velocity over the moon’s surface and could measure our angular velocity over a point on the surface by timing the passage of a lunar crater over a scale etched on my window. That permitted us to calculate our altitude above the surface. Our calculations indicated we were well within the limits.
In that process, I noted that we were reaching certain craters a few seconds early indicating that we would probably reach the final descent point somewhat west of our intended landing point.
Once you were down on the moon’s surface, did you feel like you were rushing to get a lot done in those 2.5 hrs? Did the time go quickly?
We knew we would be busy and knew we would be fully occupied throughout our surface work. We also knew that there might be unexpected events or observations that could distract us. We tried to work at a steady pace consistent with our practice sessions on Earth. The time went by quickly but we were able to get most all of our planned work done
Can you describe your adjustment to the limelight after you came back home?
What do you tell younger members of your family about the Apollo 11 mission?
They rarely ask. They are focused on today’s world which is just the way I was at their age.