Neil Armstrong – First Man To Walk On The Moon

Neil Armstrong - Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Neil Armstrong – Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

On this day, May 6th 1968, less than one small second of time could have changed the history of who became the first man to walk on the moon. That small second was the time it took after Neil Armstrong ejected from his Lunar Landing Research Vehicle at an american Air Force base near Houston, before it crashed and burst into flames during a training flight.

Flying Bedsteads

The LLRVs, or “Flying Bedsteads” as they were known because of their resemblance to a bed frame, were built to help simulate the Moon’s gravity (roughly one-sixth of Earth’s) by using a large turbofan to offset the weight of the craft in our planets gravity. The turbofan would produce enough down-force to compensate for 5/6ths of the crafts weight, meaning there was the equivalent of 1/6th of the actual weight for the astronauts to control – thereby equaling as close as possible, the weight of the craft while descending to the Moon.

All of the lunar astronauts trained in the Flying Bedstead, but it was Neil Armstrong who was training in it that day, that had yet another near death experience – not his first!

On that Monday in May 1968, roughly 30 meters above the ground, a malfunction made the LLRV uncontrollable and it started to bank resulting in a catastrophic crash.

Armstrong ejected with less than half a second spare. Had he been fractionally slower in doing so, analysis shows that his parachute may not have had enough time to open – and the consequences could have been extremely serious, if not fatal.

His only injury as a result of the accident, was biting his tongue upon hitting the ground!

Had the outcome of the disaster been different, the famous name of the first man to walk on the Moon, could easily have been someone other than Neil Armstrong.

Other Close Calls

Neil Armstrong began a career as an experimental research test pilot. One of his notable first assignments was to fly bombers which were modified to drop experimental aircraft of the time. On one such occasion on March 22nd 1956, a malfunction in engine number four, caused the propeller to spin out of control, while the bomber still had the Skyrocket experimental plane (a rocket and jet-powered supersonic research aircraft built by the Douglas Aircraft Company) secured to its underbelly.

With the Skyrocket attached, they could not land the bomber – but had to maintain a set airspeed to allow it to be deployed safely. They put the nose of the bomber down to compensate for the lost engines power, and launched the Skyrocket. At that instant, the engine’s propeller disintegrated and damaged the number three engine.

Now they had two engines on one side of the plane operating, and none on the other. This caused a force which was trying to spin the bomber around on itself (torque), and so they had to shut down engine number one. They circled slowly under the power of only one engine of a four engine plane, and eventually landed safely.

Rocket Plane

On hist first flight in the Bell X-1B rocket plane in August 1957, due to a design defect, on landing, the nose gear broke – something that had happened a number of times for other pilots earlier. He went on to fly the X-15 a number of times, and in one of his final flights reached an altitude of 207,000 feet. Airliners these days fly around 30,000 feet!!

Starfighter

In May 1962, Armstrong was flying a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and was sent to inspect Delamar Dry Lake in southern Nevada as a possible spot for emergency landings.

Upon landing himself, he had mis-judged his height slightly. His planes landing gear had not fully extended and as he touched the ground it began to retract again. Realizing this he applied full power and took off again – but some significant damage had already been inflicted on his plane. Upon landing he caused some damage to the arresting wire (which a tail-hook damaged in the aborted landing previously was supposed to catch), and dragged the chain along the runway.

Another pilot, Mil Thompson, was sent from Edwards Air-force Base to pick Armstrong up. However upon him landing to pick up his stranded colleague, one of the tyres of his “rescue” plane blew-out.

This in turn caused more damage to the runway. Again, the runway was closed for a period of time to allow the damage to be repaired/removed. Bill Dana was then sent in a T-33 Shooting Star to pick up his stranded friends, but he too had difficulties in landing.

The Nellis base operations team decided that 3 issues at once meant it was probably safer just to drive the three stranded NASA pilots back to their base at Edwards.

Neil Armstrong

So there you have a brief summary of some mishaps Neil Armstrong suffered during his career, not least of which was the Flying Bedstead crashing and exploding into flames with less than a second to spare! His life story is fascinating, and particularly in his personal life, heart rendering at times too – but he was without doubt and extraordinary man, with extraordinary support both in terms of his family and his colleagues throughout his career, and his fellow astronauts – David Scott on Gemini 8 launched on March 16th, 1966, and many others, most notably Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin who in Apollo 11, launched on July 20th, 1969, and reached the lunar surface 6 hours later on July 21st with the immortal phrase: “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” spoken by Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.

Michael Collins wrote about his career and being part of the historic space mission in his book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.

The Moon

So when you look up at the Moon tonight, or any other night – think about not just the journey Neil, Buzz and Michael took to get there – but the fascinating story of the whole space program by scientists and astronauts the world over, and the many sacrifices and celebrations they endured and enjoyed to make a man walk on the Moon.

When you look up at the Moon or other planets, what do you think of?

Mark

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