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Neil Armstrong

Peter Bond on the shy astronaut who became the first man on the Moon and the most famous man on Earth

FEW people leave such a lasting imprint on human history that they are raised to the status of immortality, but Neil Armstrong was one of that select band. His televised exploits during one week in July 1969 elevated him above his fellow astronauts and test pilots to the rank of superhero.

Armstrong was in exactly the right place at the right time, but he had earned the right to rewrite the history books by becoming the first man to walk on the Moon.

Neil Alden Armstrong was born in August 1930 in his grandparents' farmhouse near Wapakoneta, Ohio. He was the first of three children born to Stephen Armstrong, an auditor, and his wife, Viola Engel.

His mother spent many hours reading and talking with her eldest son, and her efforts were rewarded with his rapid educational progress. He was able to skip second grade at school because his reading had reached fifth-grade level.

Armstrong's obsession with flight began with a family outing to Cleveland municipal airport when he was two years old. Four years later, his father took him for his first plane ride and, aged seven, he built the first of hundreds of model aeroplanes. During his teens, he worked as a "grease monkey" at the local aerodrome, earning money to pay for flying lessons.

Apart from aeronautics, the young Armstrong filled his time with playing baritone horn in the school band and staring through a telescope. At 17, he won a Navy scholarship and moved to Purdue University in Indiana. His academic career was interrupted two years later when he was called to active duty. After training in single-engine fighters at Pensacola because he "didn't want to be responsible for anyone else", he was sent to the Korean War.

As the youngest member of his squadron, he flew 78 combat missions from an aircraft carrier from 1950-52, and received three air medals.

Back at Purdue, he completed his degree in aeronautical engineering and fell in love with a doctor's daughter named Janet Shearon.

Upon graduation in 1955, Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the forerunner of Nasa. He worked at Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, then transferred to the High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California, as a civilian aeronautical test research pilot, and gained his first taste of spaceflight at the controls of the X-15 rocket plane.

On his way to the base in the Californian desert, he stopped off at a summer camp where Janet was working. "He said if I would marry him and come along in the car, he'd get six cents a mile for the trip. If I didn't, he'd only get four," she said.

Unimpressed by this unromantic proposal, Janet turned him down, but she later relented and they were married in 1956. Their first child was born in the summer of 1957.

Between August 1957 and July 1962, Armstrong became one of the test pilot elite, participating in four flights of the X-1B experimental aircraft and seven test flights of the X-15. He became one of the fastest humans alive, his rocket plane soaring to a speed of 3,988mph and reaching a maximum altitude of more than 39 miles.

Some of the other pilots mistook his shyness and isolated determination for coldness. In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe wrote that Armstrong's facial expression "hardly ever changed. You'd ask him a question, and he would just stare at you with those pale blue eyes, and you'd start to ask the question again, and -- click -- out would come a sequence of long, quiet, perfectly formed, precisely thought-out sentences".

Once, when Armstrong was co-piloting a B-29 bomber from which a test rocket would be launched, a propeller broke away from one engine, cut an oil line in the neighbouring engine, severed flight control cables and embedded itself into the lower fuselage. Armstrong and his companion coaxed the crippled plane back to base.

With the transformation of the NACA into Nasa and the initiation of the manned spaceflight programme, test pilots such as Armstrong were in prime position for astronaut selection. In 1962, he became Nasa's first civilian astronaut as one of nine successful applicants from the 300 who applied to join the space agency's second astronaut group.

Armstrong was given the command pilot's seat on Gemini 8. It turned out to be one of the shortest manned space missions ever flown. After launch on March 16, 1966, Armstrong and co-pilot David Scott successfully completed the first docking with another space vehicle, an Agena rocket upper stage. Within 30 minutes, the crew were fighting for their lives as the Gemini-Agena combination encountered unexpected roll and yaw motion.

Uncertain of the reason for their plight, Armstrong decided to abort the mission and undock from the upper stage. As the rate of rotation increased to one revolution per second, the crew started to become disorientated and threatened with unconsciousness.

Aware that the problem must lie in the Gemini's main control system, Armstrong shut it down and successfully damped down the violent spinning motion by activating the re-entry control system. Although the crew wanted to press on with the mission, ground control ordered them to return to Earth. Only 10 hours after lift-off from Florida, they made an emergency splashdown in the western Pacific.

After two more back-up assignments on Gemini 11 and Apollo 8 -- the first manned mission to leave Earth's gravitational influence and go into orbit around the Moon -- Armstrong was appointed commander of Apollo 11. He and his crew knew there was a distinct possibility they would be first in line for a lunar landing, but all depended on the success of the preceding missions. As it turned out, Apollos 9 and 10 passed their trials with flying colours, clearing the way for Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins to make history.

Hordes of spectators turned up at Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969 to witness the launch of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo 11 crew. Four days later, Armstrong guided the lunar module Eagle past a large crater for a perfect touchdown on the Sea of Tranquillity. "Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed," he declared.

Six-and-a-half hours later, a worldwide TV audience of 500 million watched as Armstrong's ghostly figure slid down the ladder. His slow motion jump on to the pristine lunar surface culminated in the immortal words: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

After setting up their experiments, collecting rock and soil samples, receiving congratulations from President Nixon and deploying the American flag, it was time for Armstrong and Aldrin to return to the Eagle for a well-earned rest before returning home.

After the excitement of Apollo 11, the most famous man in the world was given a desk job at Nasa HQ in Washington DC. In 1971 he left, bought a dairy farm in Ohio and joined the engineering faculty of the University of Cincinnati where he remained as a professor of aerospace engineering until 1979.

Armstrong was operated on this month to relieve blocked coronary arteries, but died of complications from that surgery. In 1994 he was divorced by Janet, and shortly after married Carol Knight of Cincinnati. He leaves two children, Eric and Mark. His daughter Karen died of a brain tumour in 1959.

Sunday Independent