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Our Rich History: Remembering Apollo 11’s reluctant hero Neil Armstrong and his big step 50 years ago


By John Schlipp
Special to KyForward

This month marks the 50th anniversary of our nation’s historic Apollo 11 flight and the first footsteps of humans on the moon. The launch occurred on July 16, 1969. Crew members Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins accompanied commander Neil Armstrong. Neil and Buzz landed the Eagle (lunar module) on the moon on July 20, while Michael Collins orbited around the moon in the Columbia (command and service module), capturing photos and performing experiments.

Commemorative drinking glass of Apollo, issued by Marathon Oil. Courtesy of John Schlipp.

Neil and Buzz just barely had enough fuel for their lunar module landing. The Eagle arrived on a rougher than anticipated lunar terrain. Armstrong carefully maneuvered the lunar module beyond a huge unexpected crater for a successful first landing on the moon at 4:17 p.m. EDT. Armstrong then communicated back to Earth, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The Mission Control despatcher in Houston elatedly exclaimed to the Apollo crew “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we’re breathing again.”

Shortly before 10:57 p.m. EDT, while over a half-billion people watched the televised coverage from Earth, Neil stepped onto the moon surface and declared, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Listen to Armstrong’s renowned lunar dialogue here.)

Later, Neil claimed that he meant to say “one small step for a man,” but the indefinite article “a” in his sentence was missing or dropped out of the radio transmission. No matter how one remembers it, that momentous statement for all humankind resonates today. Neil Armstrong’s name and iconic image walking on the moon is considered by many as the definitive historic moment of the 20th century.

As a nine-year-old child living in Miamisburg, Ohio (a suburb south of Dayton, Ohio) during the summer of 1969, I followed the NASA space program on news broadcasts and in popular periodicals such as the weekly Life magazine, with its larger-than-life color photographs and informative articles. Learning about Apollo 11 served as a science summer-break lesson for many school children that summer.

Our family watched the historic walk on the moon. We owned a color television, still rare for many families then. So, it was even more surreal to view the lunar walk images which were grainy and black-and-white. Our family did not follow Walter Cronkite on CBS, as most seem to associate with this historic occasion. Instead, we were an NBC news family viewing WLW-D (Dayton) or WLW-T (Cincinnati) television. We preferred the commentary by Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank McGee and others at NBC. Here David Brinkley introduces a recap broadcast of the famous lunar landing on the following day.

Universal’s First Man movie

Soon after the crew of Apollo 11 splashed down in their return to Earth, we heard of the festivities and events occurring in Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, only a one-hour drive north of Dayton. During our family vacation to Cedar Point (Sandusky, Ohio) that summer, we stopped for lunch in Wapakoneta to see Neil’s birthplace and childhood home. Armstrong lived in a few other Ohio towns until his teen years, as his father served as an auditor for the state of Ohio which meant frequent moves. The family finally settled in their hometown of Sandusky in 1944.

During our drive to Cedar Point, we collected commemorative Libbey beverage glasses featuring the Apollo 11 mission from Marathon gas stations. With use over time, only one of these commemorative drinking glasses survived our daily routine (illustrated in this article). It is part of my treasured mementos I collected over the years from the Apollo program, including an actual autograph of Neil Armstrong.

Meanwhile, what about Neil Armstrong, who resided in our metropolitan Cincinnati region? He served as a passionate goodwill ambassador, humanitarian, professor, engineer, member of multiple boards, good son and sibling, dedicated husband and father, grandfather, agriculturalist, and so forth.

Neil attempted to live a quiet, ordinary life in a world which felt entitled to encroach upon his privacy, and in some instances a right to his name. According to his authorized biography, First Man by James Hanson, Armstrong reluctantly gave consent for the Ohio Historical Society to utilize his name for a Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, after the state had already announced the project without first consulting Neil. He stated from the start of the project that he “was uncomfortable because that museum was built as the ‘Neil Armstrong Museum.’ A number of people came to believe that it was my personal property and a business undertaking of mine.”

Subsequently, the Hallmark greeting card company produced a holiday ornament in 1994 recognizing the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It featured Neil’s name on the ornament package, an astronaut figure, and a recording playing Neil’s voice of his historic “one giant leap for mankind” adage. Apparently, Hallmark never obtained right of publicity from Armstrong to use his name and likeness on the ornament. Armstrong and Hallmark settled the case out of court with the proceeds donated to Purdue University, his alma mater.

Neil was never boastful or vain. He always gave credit to his collaborative partners. As a matter of fact, he considered himself an aeronautical engineer above all else. He felt that he was selected for the Apollo program based on his engineering qualifications. No doubt his superlative piloting skills were just as essential for being chosen for the mission. Many sources attribute his combined qualities of outstanding engineering and piloting ability to remain calm under pressure for the NASA appointment as the commander of Apollo 11.

Neil appeared uncomfortable with the presumed label of first man on the moon. He always acknowledged that Apollo 11 was a team effort where his lunar module partner Buzz Aldrin and he should both be attributed as first to land on the moon. For Neil, it did not matter who stepped on the surface of the moon first. In a similar vein, Neil often praised the hundreds of thousands of people behind the Apollo mission as the real heroes. Such selfless comments were an example of his unassuming Midwestern, Ohio roots.

Ohio’s history with aeronautics is incredible when one considers the range from the Wright Brothers to John Glenn to Neil Armstrong. As a matter of fact, Ohio is among the top few states (including California, New York, and Texas) from which a greater number of astronauts originated. NASA claims there were 25 from Ohio. Armstrong’s Midwestern sense and sensibilities were likely influential in NASA’s selection process.

Neil Armstrong teaching engineering students at the University of Cincinnati in 1974. Photo Credit: Peggy Palange, UC Public Information Office, University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons.

The recent blockbuster movie entitled, First Man (2018), is a docudrama attempting to tell the story of Armstrong’s family life during the Apollo mission. The tragic loss of his only daughter and the strain on his marriage during the Apollo mission served as dramatic incidents in the screenplay. Such private, family stress, unnoticed by the wider public at the time, provided the colors of the canvas for a story of the man behind the myth. Among source content for the movie screenplay, Neil revealed such intimate challenges during the Apollo program among his many quotes: “The one thing I regret was that my work required an enormous amount of my time and a lot of travel, and I didn’t get to spend the time I would have liked with my family as they grew up.” His first wife, Janet, affirmed family stress during the Apollo mission, stating, “You get so intently involved, and there is always a strain. It is a strain on many, many people, and it is definitely a strain on the wife and family.”

The screenplay was based upon the authorized biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, written by James R. Hansen and first published in 2005. In addition to the two Armstrong quotes above, the book provides tremendous detail about the Apollo program. Hansen’s book also discloses much of Neil’s life before and after his NASA period. It covers Neil’s primary roots in Ohio, an early fascination with aircraft and learning to fly a plane before driving a car, college life at Purdue University (where he met his first wife, Janet), military pilot service during the Korean conflict, and life after Apollo in Cincinnati.

Neil was born on August 5, 1930, in a farmhouse on River Road outside of Wapakoneta, Ohio. His birth name Neil was Scottish from the Gaelic meaning “cloud.” His passion for airplanes and flying began as a child. At the age of two or three, Neil noticed airplanes as he pleaded for his mother to purchase a 25-cent model airplane for him at the local five-and-dime store. His father recollected that when Neil was five years old “One time we were headed…for Sunday school, but they had an airplane ride that was cheaper in the morning and then a price that escalated during the day. So we skipped Sunday school and took our first airplane flight.”

It is common knowledge that Armstrong attained his pilot license before getting his automobile driver’s license. Perhaps a lesser known fact is that Lunken Airport in Cincinnati was the destination of his first cross-country solo flight from Wapakoneta while in high school. He would eventually have a connection to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. According to multiple sources, Armstrong referenced his love for Cincinnati during an address in 1974, referring to the airport’s International Air Transport Association designated code CVG, as “Cincinnati Very Good.” Of course, “CVG” officially stands for Covington, the largest major city near the airport when it opened in 1947. Armstrong also served on the advisory board of the airport.

After Apollo 11, Neil tried to evade his celebrity status by accepting a position as a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati (UC). Besides teaching the next generation at UC’s Aerospace Engineering program between 1971 to 1980, Armstrong designed new graduate courses on aircraft design and experimental flight mechanics. He received his master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California in 1970 shortly before teaching at UC.

Neil Armstrong piloted an X-15 (rocket-powered) aircraft, 1960. Courtesy of NASA, X-15 Photo Collection, Dryden Flight Research Center.

Many stories from Armstrong’s college students reflect the humble disposition he had about his Apollo achievements. In social or classroom settings, he rarely spoke of the Apollo mission. Instead, his discourse remained on his passion for airplanes, and the engineering discipline taught in each class. Neil taught his students to always trust the principles of math and science to predict the behavior of aeronautics. His students recalled how he could transcribe aerodynamics or a control theory on the chalkboard by memory. Then he would follow up with a discussion about his airplane flight test days and how such principles applied in actual tests.

A 2018 Cincinnati Enquirer article by Carol Motsinger reported an Armstrong chalkboard scenario like the one featured from a NASA conference room meeting for Neil and the other astronauts in the motion picture First Man. When Neil would diagram an airplane on the chalkboard, he inscribed gravity with a linear chalk mark all the way down to the floor. Some believe this was to take students from aeronautics theories to the reality of the hard, unmerciful ground below. For more about Armstrong’s teaching and research legacy at the University of Cincinnati click here.

Ultimately Armstrong would work in a newly established Institute of Engineering and Medicine at UC along with three prominent researchers — George Rieveschl (inventor of Benedryl® antihistamine), Edward A. Patrick (electrical engineering professor), and Dr. Henry Heimlich (originator of the Heimlich maneuver). UC awarded Armstrong an honorary doctorate in 1982.

During this time, the Armstrong family yearned for domestic tranquility after the Apollo spotlight. They purchased a farm as their new home near Lebanon, Ohio. Janet said they were looking for a quieter life in Lebanon. They had visited the Village Ice Cream parlor near the Golden Lamb restaurant in downtown Lebanon and immediately felt that it was “a safe community and good place to raise the children.” A few years later the same idealistic ice cream parlor and scenic Lebanon downtown served as a backdrop in Hollywood films such as Harper Valley PTA (1978) and Milk Money (1994). Motsinger’s Enquirer story, also reported that Neil’s usual order at the ice cream parlor consisted of the soup and sandwich special with a glass of water. He was often seen dining at the Lebanon Frisch’s too.

According to Hansen’s biography, the Armstrongs’ 19th Century farmhouse sat on more than 300 acres. Neil and his family raised cattle and grew corn, soybeans, hay and wheat. His sons attended Boy Scout meetings, just as Neil did when he was young and living in Wapakoneta. One son even participated in a 4-H cattle auction at the Warren County Fair.

Following Neil’s resignation from University of Cincinnati after 1980, the Armstrongs became empty-nesters. Both of their sons were away from home. Mark Armstrong graduated from Stanford University, while Rick graduated from Wittenberg College in Ohio. It was at this point that the relationship of Neil and Janet began to sever, sadly leading to divorce after 38 years of marriage. Janet struggled with the decision to leave Neil for many years. In Hanson’s biography, she revealed that her decision to divorce dealt with realization of Neil’s personality, which she could no longer live with. It appeared that the strain of being a spouse to an iconic astronaut had taken its toll. Meanwhile, Neil suffered a heart attack, and his parents passed away. Neil attempted to mend the marriage, but Janet’s decision was final.

After 23 years living on a farm in Lebanon, Neil’s life entered a new chapter as he met Carol Held Knight, a widow and mother of two teenage children. They met through friends at a golf tournament event in Cincinnati. Neil soon retired and enjoyed the company of family and playing golf with his sons Rick and Mark. He even remained in contact with some of his UC students via email and lunch meetings to discuss the latest developments in aviation.

Neil’s first wife Janet remained close with her children but still struggled to understand Neil. Mainly, it was Neil’s avoiding recognition of his celebrated place in history. While Neil was still alive she said this always bothered him to the point that he “was afraid of making a social mistake, and he has no reason to feel that way, for he was always a well-mannered gentleman.”

Apollo 11 crew: Neil A. Armstrong. Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. Courtesy of NASA.

Neil’s son Mark recently added to his mother’s remark in First Man: The Annotated Screenplay (Titan Books, 2018), that his “dad was a shared global commodity, and the legitimate and worthwhile demands on his time were far more than he could ever negotiate. So, you enjoyed the time you had together, and you tried to do whatever you could to lessen the burden that was clearly and perpetually on his shoulders.”

On Saturday, August 25, 2012, Neil Armstrong died from complications of cardiovascular surgery at Fairfield Mercy Hospital. A private funeral was held at the Camargo Golf Club in Indian Hill, the Cincinnati suburb where Neil had lived with his second wife Carol since 1994. Neil was cremated. His ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean off Jacksonville, Florida on September 14, 2012, from aboard the USS Philippine Sea based at Naval Station Mayport. At the time of Neil’s passing, the Armstrong family released an official statement which included a request for those wishing to pay tribute to the life and legacy of the first man to step on the moon: “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.”

Neil once served on the board of the Cincinnati Museum Center. The museum now features The Neil Armstrong Space Exploration Gallery. For more about the permanent exhibit supported by the Harold C. Schott Foundation, click here.

NASA also offers many online resources devoted to the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission here. In addition, standards-aligned elementary and secondary education lessons from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are provided here.

NOTICE: Purdue Research Foundation maintains the federal trademark of the name Neil Armstrong for licensing to others the right of publicity related to the persona of Neil Armstrong. All references to Neil Armstrong made here are for historical and news reporting purposes only.

John Schlipp is a Professor and Intellectual Property Librarian at Northern Kentucky University’s (NKU) Steely Library. He also directs the Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC) at NKU, assisting everyone from inventors to musicians in becoming aware of their intellectual property. The IPAC is an official Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Click here for details about this free community service.


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