Engineering is ‘Out of this World’


Forty-four years ago, when I had just turned 4, one of my first memories was of sitting in squirming silence as we listened to the first manned lunar landing (television broadcasting had still not arrived in South Africa). The reception was crackly and the content, for a child, dull, but the expectant and anxious looks of the adults, as they leaned in towards the small black radio, spoke clearly of the gravity of the event (excuse the pun).

It was only later that I appreciated the enormity of the occasion – history in the making! It was July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent their moments – well two and half hours - on the surface of the moon during Apollo 11’s mission. Their first duty was to plant a US flag which then appeared to wave (despite the absence of air) because of a malfunction on its bottom extender. (On a subsequent trip, despite instructions, astronauts failed to fix it because they had grown fond of its look). Another task for the two floating men was to leave behind a package of items in remembrance of Soviet cosmonauts; Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, and Apollo 1 astronauts; Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Armstrong often pointed out that landing on the Moon was a triumph of engineering rather than a triumph of flying.

And yet it was a passion for aviation which captured his imagination from a very young age. Books, magazines and model airplane building filled his childhood and his interest in aircraft design led him to dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer. To better understand it all, however, he felt he should learn to fly. By age 16 he had flown solo for the first time and had earned his pilot’s license. (He had yet to master driving!)

As Armstrong matured so too did aviation – metal fuselage aircrafts with rocket engines were supplanting those of his childhood. He was perfectly placed to be part of the generation tackling these new engineering challenges and being a skilful pilot was to prove a huge advantage when supersonic flight was the objective.

Armstrong, despite winning a spot at MIT, chose to study at Purdue University as it was closer to his home in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He committed to service in the navy along the way and once a qualified naval aviator he completed 78 missions during the Korean War, for which he received medals of commendation. He then returned to Purdue and graduated in Aeronautical Engineering in 1955.

Interestingly, his initial application to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – NASA’s forerunner - was turned down. But within the year he was working at the Edwards Air force Base in California where he was involved with the NACA's High Speed Flight Station. It was here that Charles (Chuck) Yeager flew the experimental Bell X-1, at an altitude of 45,000ft / 13,700m, and in 1947 became the first human to break the sound barrier. The X-15 program was based here too and the goal of this ‘spaceplane’ was to challenge speed and altitude records and reveal its ability to endure the rigour of atmospheric entry and landing from space. The X-15 proved to be one of only a few spaceplanes that managed this feat, alongside the Space Shuttle, Buran and SpaceShipOne. Armstrong was one of only seven pilots to fly the X-15 and on one occasion he inadvertently set a distance record. It bounced off the atmosphere and carried Armstrong 50 miles / 80.47 km away from his targeted runway.

Many of the test pilots at Edwards praised Armstrong's engineering ability. Milt Thompson, for example, said he was "the most technically capable of the early X-15 pilots." But those without engineering degrees, who flew for the Air Force, tended to have a different opinion, including Yeager. They suggested that pilot-engineers flew mechanically rather than instinctively and that this could lead them into trouble. In spite of this, during his career, Armstrong flew more than 200 different models of aircraft. (There was obviously some rivalry between Yeager and Armstrong, however, as their recall of the same incidents, on occasion, not only differs, but is somewhat critical of the other.)

Once with NASA Armstrong was involved in the design of simulators for Gemini and Apollo spacecraft and assisted in the development of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV).The latter was very awkward and often referred to as the ‘flying bedstead’. Armstrong, however, praised the LLRV for his successful moon landing (despite a test flight in the vehicle, in 1968, which nearly cost him his life).

It is important to point out, on the 44th anniversary of the lunar landing, that history is indeed fickle. Initially it was planned that Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module Pilot, be the first to set foot on the moon. But because of the positions of the astronauts in the module, it would have required Aldrin to physically crawl over Armstrong to reach the hatch. Simply, it was easier for Armstrong to exit the module first upon landing! Armstrong was exceptional in many ways and unusually modest, but it is as the first man to step onto the moon that we remember him first and foremost.

A comment I found, following an article I read in preparation for this one, is well worth quoting. It certainly sums up the endeavours of this early team of space explorers and I believe is true of many engineers. Thanks to Marcus Moore; “Perhaps I’m biased – my father was an engineer – but there’s something warmly human about those for whom fulfilment comes simply from a sense of ‘a job well done’.

Thanks too to:

Amy Shira Teitel, Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot
Posted on August 25, 2012

John P. Millis, Ph.D, The First Man to Walk on the Moon

Purdue College of Engineering, Neil Armstrong and Purdue Engineering