The Neil Armstrong You Didn't Know

By Brinkley, Douglas | Newsweek, September 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Neil Armstrong You Didn't Know

Brinkley, Douglas, Newsweek

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Neil Armstrong You Didn't Know


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.