After 13 years, I had finally earned the late Neil Armstrong’s confidence.
Up until the end, the great American hero, who had just turned 82, guarded his privacy fiercely. But it wasn’t because he was arrogant -- he was intensely shy.
My own experience with the man of few words began in 1995 with another of my boyhood heroes, Edmund Hillary. During our interview about his 1953 first-ascent of Everest, the mountaineer suggested I do something similar with Armstrong about his 1969 historic lunar landing. He went on to say that he and Armstrong had flown to the North Pole together in 1985, and that the astronaut was a friendly chap.
So I fired off a letter to P.O. Box 436, Lebanon, Ohio, where all Armstrong interview requests were to be sent. A few weeks later a response arrived, signed by Armstrong but politely declining. In fact, Armstrong didn’t do interviews, period, so I shouldn’t be surprised or dismayed.
Persistent, I sent a few more requests, some playful, but the icon never budged.
At the 2002 annual dinner of The Explorers Club, where Armstrong was a longtime member and medalist, I finally met him in person.
When I got to the front of a long line (Walter Cronkite and George Plimpton were ahead of me), Armstrong saw my name tag and laughed, “I know who you are.” I was embarrassed but had the presence of mind to ask why he ducked interviews.
“To me, an interview is like a first draft, and I like fourth or fifth drafts.”
I could understand that. As an engineer and test pilot, where precision means the difference between life and death, you don’t want to make a mistake by being sloppy.
The following year, when I released my first adventure book, I sent Armstrong a copy. Back came an e-mail: “Thanks Jim. While reading “To the Limits,” I am reminded of all the things I still have to do, and the less and less time I have for doing them.”
I was dumbstruck. That he would acknowledge receipt of, let alone read, the book meant more to me than if I had sold a million copies (I didn’t). But I also had Armstrong’s private e- mail address.
I guarded it fiercely, but sometimes would banter with him. Every time I got a response I printed it out, almost giddily. His missives were short, but spot on.
In one, I mentioned my ski trip to the South Pole, a place he had never been but wanted to visit. He asked if the moon appeared “upside down.”
I was confused -- thought maybe he was pulling my leg --but I looked it up. Sure enough, in the southern hemisphere the moon’s large dark “mare” areas appear on the bottom right rather than upper left. I sent a photo confirming the phenomenon, and Armstrong replied with three words: “Good job, Jim!” -- as if I were his student.
Another time, I asked about his near-fatal crash while testing the clumsy Lunar Landing Training Vehicle in Texas before Apollo 11. With no warning, the craft suddenly rolled, plummeted to the ground and burned. Armstrong ejected so last- second that the tape needs to be slowed down to see the ejection.
“Some days are better than others,” he replied simply.
In 2007, Forbes, where I then worked, asked 50 prominent individuals their thoughts on the American Dream. I asked Armstrong to participate and, no surprise, he declined, writing: “To me, the American Dream today seems like nothing more than sitting back and being entertained.”
I knew, of course, if I gave that to my editors they would run with it, but I also knew I would betray Armstrong’s confidence. I kept it to myself.
Perhaps he was testing me, because the next time I asked for an interview -- for my book, “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s,” he finally agreed. Perhaps he knew the gesture would mean the world to me. And perhaps I had finally gained his trust and friendship.
That’s the kind of man Armstrong was. In a world where everything is about “me, me and me,” he was a rare throwback to a time when humility and character counted, when people routinely risked their lives not to get rich, bloviate or self- aggrandize, but for their country, science and exploration.
My first question, which I believe most of America would have asked him, had to do with the dicey landing. As he and crew mate Buzz Aldrin neared the lunar surface, Armstrong could see that their trajectory was taking them directly into a dangerous crater.
He took the controls manually, deciding to fly over the obstacle making for a safer landing but also using more fuel. In fact, by the time of touch-down, they had only 17 seconds of fuel left!
Armstrong could easily have aborted the landing, but didn’t. Here was his answer, heavy engineer talk but insightful nonetheless:
“The powered descent, final approach and landing were the most challenging segments [of Apollo 11]. The unknowns were substantial, the systems were heavily loaded and it was the first time these sequences had been attempted in flight.
“Fortunately, the Lunar Module handling characteristics were better than we had any right to expect. And our practice on the Lunar Module Simulator and in the free-flying Lunar Landing Training Vehicle had given us high confidence in our piloting ability.
“Aborting required shutting down the landing engine, separating the ascent stage from the descent stage with explosive charges and igniting the ascent engine. That was a very high-risk procedure, particularly at low altitude. It was to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. So Apollo 11 was always closer to landing than aborting.”
In another answer, Armstrong revealed his optimism about takeoff from the lunar surface to return to Earth, which many said had less than a 50 percent chance of success:
“I had been very concerned about the technical details of assuring that [on the moon] the ascent engine could be started and would do the job of getting us back into lunar orbit. But that was in the two years prior to the flight. On the lunar surface, it did not weigh on my mind at all. This was the time to think positively.”
David Scott, who flew with Armstrong on Gemini 8 and later walked on the moon as part of Apollo 15, when asked about Armstrong earlier this year told me: “I love him, he’s a wonderful guy and he’s very smart. Everybody wanted to be first down. Neil was absolutely the right man. His stewardship of being first has been marvelous.”
Coincidentally, I had a rare opportunity to repay my hero, just a little, a few months ago. Following a “60 Minutes” piece on Space X where Armstrong felt he was quoted out of context, he asked me for help in getting the record fixed.
I have a friend who knows the producer at CBS, so I made enquiries, then the appropriate introductions. Scott Pelley, the segment’s anchor, investigated. Sure enough, Armstrong got his apology, and I got a thank you from the first man who walked on the moon.
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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