Byline: Douglas Brinkley
The late astronaut's thoughts on Charles Lindbergh, NASA's early days--and his dreams of flying to Mars.
I was only 8 years old on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old commander of Apollo 11, descended the cramped lunar module Eagle's ladder with hefty backpack and bulky spacesuit to become the first human on the moon. Because it was summertime, school done for the year, watching all things Apollo 11--the nearly 200-hour galactic journey from Florida to splashdown in the Pacific--became my obsession. I didn't miss a moment of the long, nerve-wracking chain of events that led to the Eagle creating the lunar base Tranquility (named in advance by Armstrong). The Brinkleys were living in Perrysburg, Ohio, and we considered Armstrong--from nearby Wapakoneta--the honorary hometown boy. It was stunning that this local kid who grew up on a farm with no electricity was leading America into the brave new world of lunar exploration. When Armstrong said, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," we were incommensurably awed at the greatness of it all. Not Armstrong. "Pilots take no particular joy in walking," he once said in full buzzkill mode. "Pilots like flying."
For years I longed to hear Armstrong describe what it was like to contemplate Earth from 238,900 miles away. Former Space Center director George Abbey once told me that many NASA astronauts felt that looking at Earth was akin to a religious experience. Did Armstrong agree? What did it feel like--emotionally, spiritually--to stand on the surface of the moon? Armstrong's reticence was legendary. Could I get him to open up about the experience?
I originally wrote Armstrong in the early 1990s to request an interview about his Korean War service. He had flown 78 combat missions--was even hit with antiaircraft fire over enemy territory--and I wanted to write a book about it, a Band of Brothers about the flyboys of "the Forgotten War" who were assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Essex. I got a polite postcard rejection: "No thanks, but I'll keep you in mind."
It wasn't until several years later that NASA asked me to conduct its official oral history of the "First Man." I was surprised and honored to get a chance to interview him--and thrilled when the date was set for Sept. 19, 2001. Then I saw the horrifying collapse of the World Trade Center towers on TV. Like everyone else, I was grief-stricken. And I was also sure my Armstrong interview would get nixed. But it didn't play out that way. To my utter astonishment, a NASA director telephoned me that Armstrong, no matter what, never missed a scheduled rendezvous. He was going to travel from Cincinnati to Houston to do the oral history in spite of the post-terrorist-attack airport madness. Armstrong journeying to Texas days after 9/11 certainly wasn't the phoenix-like Chuck Yeager, emerging from the pages of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff in a glorious dust cloud of triumph. But his effort was impressive. The post-9/11 skies were largely shut to commercial aircraft, but Armstrong, whose own boyhood hero was aviator Charles Lindbergh, stubbornly refused to cancel an appointment that he dreaded. It was a matter of honor.
The interview started out well, with a question about Lindbergh. He raved about the famed pilot of the Spirit of St. Louis. He told me about his personal correspondence with Lucky Lindy (a trove that is still off-limits to scholars). It dawned on me that perhaps the fear of the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Syndrome had driven Armstrong underground, had turned him into a quasi-recluse. As an impermeable skeptic, he trusted neither celebrity nor crass capitalism. But the oral history was tracking. And when I turned to the Korean War, mentioning novelist James Michener's book The Bridges at Toko-Ri, he became surprisingly effusive. "Michener was on our ship," he said. "I think he went on three tours, two or three tours, you know, at four or five weeks at a crack, and would just sit around the wardroom in the evening or in the ready room in the daytime and listen to guys tell the actual stories. …