Thursday 14 November 2019

Day Earth stood still as one man leapt into history

Neil Armstrong uttered the most famous words in the history of space travel after he stepped down from the Apollo 11 spacecraft on to the moon's surface on July 20, 1969.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," he radioed back to NASA mission control in Houston after making the first human footprint on a surface beyond Earth.

Television footage showed him hopping across the lunar surface with evident delight.

On Earth, a world was transfixed; nobody who watched his descent from the moon-landing vehicle can forget watching the first steps ever taken by mankind beyond its home planet.

Armstrong spent nearly three hours walking on the moon with fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.

He was the product of an era that dreamed of reaching for the stars and inspired the generations of astronauts that followed him.

With America currently having no manned space programme, his death marks the end of an era in the exploration of the universe.

Armstrong, who lived with his wife Carol in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, had largely remained out of public view in recent years.

But he made an appearance in February at an event honouring fellow astronaut John Glenn's 50th anniversary of orbiting Earth for the first time as an American.

In May, Armstrong joined Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, at Pensacola Naval Air Station for the opening of The National Flight Academy to educate schoolchildren about space travel.

Like the other early astronauts whose careers were captured in the film The Right Stuff, Armstrong came through the ranks as an elite US military test pilot. His love affair with flying began at two, according to family lore, when his father took him to see the Cleveland air races. He earned his pilot's certificate at 15, before he had a driver's licence.

A veteran of the Korean War, he joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1962 and his first space flight was as command pilot of the Gemini 8 mission in 1966.

He only made one other flight into space -- as commander of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

He spent much of his life after landing feeling guilt that he received the fame and credit for a space programme that involved the work of 400,000 Americans after it was launched by President John Kennedy eight years earlier.

But the success of the Apollo 11 mission owed much to Armstrong's clarity of thought and split-second ability to make life-saving decisions, friends said.

During the spacecraft's final descent, he encountered a series of computer failures that could have led him to abort the landing.

He also noted that during the lunar descent burn, the moon's craters were passing earlier than expected -- an indication that his landing craft, the Eagle, might miss its planned landing spot by several miles.

He took over manual controls and with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining, steered Eagle to a safe landing on the rocky, dusty surface of the so-called Sea of Tranquillity. "Houston, Tranquility Base here," Armstrong announced to Houston. "The Eagle has landed."

After he had confirmed touchdown, his mission control landers told him about their fears during the manual landing as the fuel ran out. "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again."

About half-an-hour into their moon walk, Amstrong and Aldrin planted the United States flag on the surface.

The perilous landing might explain his words as he landed: Armstrong meant to describe it as "a giant step for a man".

The success of the eight-day mission, including a faultless lift-off from the lunar surface to rejoin the main spacecraft waiting to retrieve them in lunar orbit, could be the most fully documented event in history.

During two-and-a-quarter hours on the surface, the two astronauts collected almost 48lb of rock and soil samples and deployed a laser reflector and a seismometer, as well as erecting the US flag.

This had been changed at the last moment by order of the US government from the United Nations flag proposed by NASA.

While Apollo 11 was in lunar orbit, the Soviets were making a bold but unsuccessful bid to make an unmanned landing in the Sea of Crises to gather a small lunar sample and return it to Earth a few hours before Armstrong and Aldrin could return. But their spacecraft, Luna 15, crashed and so it was Armstrong and the Americans who entered history.

His family issued a statement over the weekend, part of which read: "For those who may ask what they can do to honour Neil, we have a simple request. Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

Irish Independent

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