First Man on the Moon

He risked his life for the nation and became a world icon, but who was Neil Armstrong? Airing November 15, 2017 at 10 pm on PBS Airing November 15, 2017 at 10 pm on PBS

  • Originally aired 12.03.14

Program Description

Everyone knows Neil Armstrong was the first to set foot on the moon. But this modest and unassuming man was determined to stay out of the spotlight. Now, for the first time, NOVA presents an intimate portrait of Armstrong through interviews with his family and friends, many of whom have never spoken publicly before. Discover and relive Armstrong's achievements before and after Apollo, from his time as a Navy combat veteran and later as a pioneer of high-speed flight to his leading role in the inquiry into the Challenger disaster and his efforts to encourage young people to take to the skies. Along the way, we learn how Armstrong's life became the inspiring story of heroic risk-taking and humble dedication that ultimately advanced humanity's adventure in space.


First Man on the Moon

PBS Airdate: March 2, 2016

NARRATOR: As Apollo 11 embarked on mankind's bold adventure to land on the moon, the world's hopes and dreams hung on the actions of its three-man crew, but in particular, Commander Neil Armstrong. With the skills that had made him one of America's finest aviators, Armstrong marked his place in history with these famous words:

NEIL ARMSTRONG (NASA/First Man on the Moon / File Footage): That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.

NARRATOR: But what was it that had brought him to this historic moment? Armstrong had climbed to the pinnacle of his profession, tested in combat, in the skies over Korea; reaching to the limit of the atmosphere as an elite test pilot; and on into space, where his cool head saved lives; and finally, accepting a lifelong mantle of fame that didn't always sit well with him.

ANDREW CHAIKIN (Space Historian): We ask a lot of our heroes. We put a burden on them. We put a burden on Neil Armstrong that he didn't enjoy.

NARRATOR: So who was Neil Armstrong? His story now told by those who lived, loved and worked with the First Man on the Moon, up next on NOVA.

JOHN F. KENNEDY (President of the United States, 1960–1963 / File Footage): I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

NARRATOR: When President John F. Kennedy articulated this bold vision, in 1961, he pinned American technological supremacy and national pride on winning a race to the moon. The stakes were huge.

NASA APOLLO 11 MISSION CONTROL: Three, two, one, fire.

ANDREW CHAIKIN: It staggers the imagination, frankly, and there were plenty of people, even within NASA, who thought that Kennedy had lost his sanity.

NARRATOR: Incredibly, just eight years, later three men were poised to achieve the President's goal. In command was Neil Armstrong.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Archive Interview): We, the crew of Apollo 11, are privileged to represent the United States in our first attempt to take man to another heavenly body.

NARRATOR: At 38 years old, Armstrong was at the pinnacle of an impressive flying career. An innate steadiness, along with exceptional aviation skills, had seen him through the Korean War, allowed him to master the most unforgiving aircraft as a test pilot, and brought a crippled spacecraft safely back to Earth. Now, his ability as a pilot would be put to the ultimate test, attempting a landing on the moon.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Program alarm!

NARRATOR: As the world held its breath, and with only seconds of fuel remaining, Neil Armstrong guided his fragile craft towards the surface of an alien world. He was about to complete a journey that, for him, had begun more than 30 years before, when he had first taken flight, as a young boy.

Born here, in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5th, 1930, Neil Armstrong's love affair with flying began early, as his childhood friend recalls.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF (Neil Armstrong's Childhood Friend): When he was, like, five years old, his father took him on an airplane ride on a Tri-Motor. They had got sick, but Neil just absolutely loved it.

NARRATOR: The mid-1930s was a golden age of flight in America, and like many other young children, Neil's first taste of being airborne left a lasting impression.

DEAN ARMSTRONG (Neil Armstrong's Brother): This was the start. And the feeling of being airborne, and actually flying like a bird, it kindled his inspiration to fly. He absolutely loved everything about flight. He would have three or four model airplane projects going on all the time, mostly gliders, then he got into the rubber band type. And he just kept building bigger and bigger ones and better ones.

MIKE COLLINS (Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot): We both made models early, and, of course, our desire then, as it was later in our careers, was to make these things go higher and faster. And my, my solution to higher and faster was you took a couple of extra turns on the rubber band. Neil's solution? He built a wind tunnel!

DEAN ARMSTRONG: When we were ready for the test, he said “Go get Mom.” I said, “Neil wants you to see something.” So, and he turned it on.

JUNE HOFFMAN (Neil Armstrong's Sister): And, all of a sudden, the house shook, and I mean the house really shook.

MIKE COLLINS: How many kids could build a wind tunnel in their basement? Not any I know, except Neil.

NARRATOR: Neil's infatuation with flying was fuelled as America entered the Second World War, in December, 1941. He devoured the daring exploits of Allied pilots portrayed in popular wartime magazines. They inspired him, and, at just 15 years old, he learned to fly.

DEAN ARMSTRONG: He had his pilot's license before he had his driver's license.

NARRATOR: During the war, developments in aviation were moving fast. After 1945, propeller planes were starting to be replaced by aircraft powered by jet and rocket engines.

Then came an event that shook the whole of the aviation world.

Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound in his Bell X-1 rocket plane, in 1947, coincided with an ominous turn in East-West relations. And the implications for Armstrong would prove profound.

Eager to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering, Armstrong won a Navy scholarship to study the subject and enrolled at Purdue University. But his studies were soon interrupted, as the Cold War began to heat up.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: At the end of his second year, which would have been 1950, the Korean War started.

NARRATOR: Backed by Communist China, North Korea invaded South Korea. When America responded by scrambling its armed forces, Armstrong found himself at war. He was 20 years old.

He joined Naval Fighter squadron VF-51 on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Essex. There was a lot to learn, and fast, as he recalls in this audio interview:

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): We had to become carrier-qualified in the jet aircraft. Doing a lot of practice with weapons delivery, instrument flying and so on. I was very young, very green.

NARRATOR: But Armstrong quickly mastered carrier flying, one of aviation's most challenging jobs, and was soon showing his skill in combat.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: One of his jobs was to dive bomb and blow up bridges and railroads. And he said the North Koreans strung up wires.

NARRATOR: For low-flying pilots, anti-aircraft cables were an ever-present danger. They were hard to spot, even for the sharp-eyed Armstrong.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): I actually ran through a cable, an anti-aircraft cable, and knocked off about six or eight feet of my right wing.

NARRATOR: Battling to keep control, Armstrong needed to think fast and react quickly.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: As long as he could keep a certain speed, he could stay up, but as soon as he slowed down, the plane would drop. So, he knew that he could not land on the aircraft carrier. He'd have to bail out.

NARRATOR: This close shave revealed Armstrong's uncanny ability to always remain calm under pressure.

DEAN ARMSTRONG: He never ever showed any fear or anything involving his close calls. He really loved what he was doing. It was a very meaningful time for him.

NARRATOR: The Korean War sharpened the skills of many young pilots, including Armstrong. He'd flown 78 missions by the age of 22.

He returned to Purdue in 1952, where he received his degree and found a wife.

JANET ARMSTRONG (Neil Armstrong's First Wife): Oh, I met him at Purdue. He told someone that I was the one he was going to marry, but he never asked me out until he had graduated. We were married in January, 1956, and after that, in May, we went up to the desert.

NARRATOR: Here at Edwards Air Force Base, in California, Armstrong would become a test pilot. Edwards was the mecca for America's elite aviators. But the work wasn't for the fainthearted. It required a cool head, quick thinking, and the ability to understand how an untested machine would react in an untried environment. Honing these skills would make test pilots top contenders for future space missions, and Armstrong was no exception.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): We were out at the edges of the flight envelope all of the time, testing limits. If memory serves, there were 17 aircraft, pretty much all different: a lot of X airplanes and fighters, B-47s a couple of B-29s, all kinds of exotic aircraft.

Then, as they became more confident in my abilities, they gave me more and more jobs. I did a lot of test programs in those days.

ANDY CHAIKIN: The kinds of flying that he did at Edwards really put him in the elite top of the test-flying fraternity.

NARRATOR: But one machine at Edwards pushed Armstrong higher and faster than any other: the X-15.

ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: Heading uphill at 33,000 feet…

ANDY CHAIKIN: The X-15 was literally crossing the boundary from aviation into spaceflight, and it was an incredibly demanding vehicle to fly.

NARRATOR: Half plane, half spacecraft, the rocket-powered X-15 was the cutting edge of aviation technology. It flew at hypersonic speeds, more than six times faster than sound, soaring over 50 miles in altitude. It still holds the record of the fastest plane ever flown.

MIKE COLLINS: The X-15 was absolutely the top of the line. It was a whole supersonic zone above the rest of us, and, and therefore, all the people who flew the X-15 were held in the highest regard by the rest of us peasants. Neil, of course, was one of that group.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): That was a very exciting program; challenging goals. I think it was certainly one of the memorable parts of my life.

NARRATOR: One flight almost got the better of him.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): I got the nose up above the horizon, and I found I was actually you know, skipping outside the atmosphere. I had no aerodynamic controls.

NARRATOR: Soaring out of the atmosphere at almost a mile a second, Armstrong was unable to keep control.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): What I couldn't do is get back down in the atmosphere. I pulled over and pulled down, but it wasn't going down, ‘cause there was no air to bite into. So I just had to wait until I got back in with enough air to have aerodynamic control and some lift on the wings and immediately started making a turn back.

ANDY CHAIKIN: He's the essence of the engineering test pilot, and what that carries with it is an intensity, a focus like you can't imagine.

NARRATOR: The X-15 further challenged and sharpened Armstrong's flying ability, but his young family also faced challenges at Edwards.

JANET ARMSTRONG: It was totally different, foreign, from anything I'd known in my life. That's where we lived when Rick was born, and then, shortly thereafter, Karen.

NARRATOR: In 1961, aged two, Karen fell seriously ill.

JANET ARMSTRONG: Karen was a precious thing, and she, she developed a tumor in her brain, and we could not save her.

DEAN ARMSTRONG: The death of Karen really hurt him. It was the only time that I'd ever see him really, really hurt, he couldn't talk about it.

NARRATOR: Despite his loss, to all outward appearances, Armstrong remained focused on his duties as a test pilot. But beyond the skies at Edwards, the space race was on, opening up an entirely new set of opportunities.

America's manned space program began with Project Mercury, in 1961, six short flights, each carrying a single astronaut. But to meet Kennedy's challenge of a man on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA would require more astronauts.

ANDY CHAIKIN: When NASA was looking, you know, Neil Armstrong was at the top of their list, because he'd had all of that flight-test experience at Edwards. And that just made him incredibly attractive to the Astronaut Selection Group.

JUNE HOFFMAN: Curiously, the Milwaukee Journal gave me a call, and they said, “I understand your brother is one of the newest astronauts.” And I think I was speechless.

NARRATOR: Along with Janet, Rick, and a new son, Mark, Neil began a new life in Houston, the home of America's manned space program.

RICK ARMSTRONG (Neil Armstrong's Elder Son): It was a nice house. It had, you know, we had a pool.

MARK ARMSTRONG (Neil Armstrong's Younger Son): Because it was Houston, because it was often very hot, there was a lot of swimming.

NARRATOR: The neighborhood was buzzing with trainee astronauts.

BUZZ ALDRIN (NASA, Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot): There was this guy in the backyard, in front of the garage, where there's a lot of cement, and here's this guy roller-skating. I said, “Who's that?” And they said, “Oh, that's Neil Armstrong.”

NARRATOR: By 1964, NASA's blueprint to reach the moon was taking shape. As this animated film of the time shows, it was called Project Apollo. The plan went like this…

Guzzling 15 tons of fuel a second, at launch, the giant Saturn V rocket would send the Apollo spacecraft, both the command and lunar module, into space.

ANDY CHAIKIN: After about sixty-nine hours, they go into orbit around the moon.

NARRATOR: Once there, the spacecraft undock; the command module remains in orbit, while the lunar module attempts the landing. After exploring the surface, the two astronauts re-join their companion in lunar orbit.

ANDY CHAIKIN: Finally, they leave lunar orbit and make the trip back to Earth. And the mission ends with the command module re-entering the earth's atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific.

NARRATOR: It looked great on paper, but could it work? Finding out was the task of Project Gemini.

ANDY CHAIKIN: The demands of a lunar mission were so great: you had to learn how to rendezvous in space; you had to keep people happy and healthy for up to two weeks in space; they had to be able to work in the vacuum of space in a spacesuit, a pressurized suit.

ED WHITE (NASA, Gemini Astronaut, Mission Audio): I feel like a million dollars!

ANDY CHAIKIN: So Gemini was really the way that NASA could learn to master these complexities in the relative safety of low-Earth orbit.

NARRATOR: Armstrong's first spaceflight was Gemini VIII, in 1966; a daring mission to attempt the first docking in space with an unmanned spacecraft called Agena.

His co-pilot was Dave Scott.

DAVE SCOTT (NASA, Gemini VIII Astronaut): Well, yes. I mean the whole program depended on docking. Docking needed to be proven or we couldn't go to the moon. So it was a critical mission, yes.

NARRATOR: Squeezed into their tight-fitting Gemini capsule, the pair prepared for launch. Neither of them knew what lay in store.

GEMINI VIII MISSION CONTROL (Audio Archive): Three, two, one, zero, ignition. And we have a liftoff at three seconds. Three seconds. Neil Armstrong reports the clock has started. Roll program is in Armstrong says.

JANET ARMSTRONG: Well, in our homes during the flight, we had air-to-ground communications. We called them the squawk box, because it squawked all the time.

GEMINI VIII MISSION CONTROL (Audio Archive): Roger. We have staging.

JANET ARMSTRONG: When they talked air-to-ground you could update yourself. They started out just great.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Gemini VIII Mission Audio): Okay, we've got a visual on the Agena, at 76 miles.

GEMINI VIII MISSION CONTROL (Audio Archive): Roger. Understand. Visual on the Agena at 76 miles.

NARRATOR: Their docking target, the Agena rocket, had been launched earlier that day.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Gemini VIII Mission Audio): Man, that's great!

DAVE SCOTT (Gemini VIII Mission Audio): Man, that's really slick!

NARRATOR: As Armstrong and Scott passed into the night side of the earth, they prepared for docking.

GEMINI VIII MISSION CONTROL (Audio Archive): Okay, Gemini VIII, you're looking good on the ground. Go ahead and dock.

DAVE SCOTT: Neil eased it forward, and we moved right in.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Gemini VIII Mission Audio): Flight, we are docked!

NARRATOR: But within half an hour, Scott realized there was something wrong.

DAVE SCOTT: You're supposed to fly straight and level, like an airplane, but, all of a sudden, I noticed that we were tilted.

NARRATOR: They didn't know, but a small maneuvering thruster on their Gemini spacecraft had become stuck and was firing.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): We first suspected that the Agena was the culprit. We were on the dark side of the earth, so we really didn't have any outside reference.

NARRATOR: Out of contact with the ground, the astronauts struggled to regain control.

DAVE SCOTT: So I said, “Neil, we'd better get off.” He said, “Yeah, we'd better get off. Let's prepare to undock.” And then he says, “Ready,” and I put my hand on the switch. Neil says, “Undock.” And then things start really moving.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Gemini VIII Mission Audio): We've got serious problems here. We're tumbling end over end. We've disengaged from the Agena.

DAVE SCOTT: Then we go into a very rapid roll, which was almost a tumble, and at that point we realized that it wasn't the Agena, it must be the Gemini.

JANET ARMSTRONG: They were spinning at maybe a revolution per second.

NARRATOR: At home, a photographer from LIFE magazine captured Janet as she listened in to the unfolding drama.

JANET ARMSTRONG: And there was a very strong concern that they would black out. And that would be, it, it would be over. And then NASA cut the squawk box. And I didn't like that. So, I went over to NASA, and I was refused entry.

NARRATOR: Back in orbit, Armstrong kept his cool, figuring out his only remaining option: disengage all the maneuvering thrusters, including the one that was stuck, and use the re-entry thrusters to counteract the tumbling and regain control of the spacecraft.

DAVE SCOTT: He had to reach up above his head and throw switches under this high-speed roll. That's amazing that he was able to do that. And he knew exactly where the switches were, exactly which ones to throw.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Gemini VIII Mission Audio): Okay, we're regaining control of the spacecraft, slowly.

DAVE SCOTT: I mean, the guy was brilliant. He knew the system so well that he found the solution. He activated the solution under extreme circumstances. And I have to say it was my lucky day to be flying with Mr. Neil Armstrong.

NARRATOR: Activating the re-entry thrusters meant aborting the mission, and a couple of hours later, the crew splashed down in the South China Sea. Armstrong had cut short the flight, but he'd saved their lives.

JANET ARMSTRONG: He landed and came home, and we're…you know, he's telling me about the flight. We knew that they could have lost their life, and you knew that anyway, so there's no point in talking about it. You either do or you don't. That's the way it is, you know?

ANDY CHAIKIN: That was, sort of, NASA's baptism of fire, because it was the first time that astronauts had really come close to losing their lives on a spaceflight.

I don't think there's any doubt that the people who were running the show in Houston saw Neil's performance on Gemini VIII as a real demonstration of what he was capable of under pressure, in a crisis.

NARRATOR: The full risks of the space program hit home, less than a year later, in January, 1967, when the Apollo I spacecraft caught fire on the pad, killing its three man crew: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Armstrong found himself burying his friends.

DAVE SCOTT: Everybody's attitude that I knew was, “This is a real disaster, but we go on, because we know Gus and Ed and Roger would want us to go on, wouldn't want us to stop.”

NARRATOR: Overhauling Apollo took almost two years. Eager to make up for lost time, NASA launched Apollos 7, 8, 9 and 10, in quick succession. They were designed to rigorously test every aspect of Apollo in Earth and lunar orbit.

Armstrong's next trip into space hinged on the success of these missions. NASA's flight roster called for him to be backup Commander of Apollo 8, in December, 1968, and it placed him in line to command Apollo 11.

As it turned out, this would be the first mission to attempt a landing on the moon.

ANDY CHAIKIN: Nobody thought that all those preliminary flights would go as perfectly as they did. And nobody would have predicted that you would arrive at July, 1969, and Apollo 11 would actually be the first attempt to land on the moon.

NARRATOR: Joining Armstrong was command module pilot Mike Collins, and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin would attempt the landing with Neil. If all went well, Commander Armstrong would be first out on the moon. But in characteristic fashion he played it down.

CHARLIE DUKE (Apollo 11 Capsule Communicator): Neil's attitude is, “I'm not going to be number one on the moon.” What I saw in his attitude was that, “I'm training to be the first one to attempt the landing on the moon.”

NARRATOR: Landing on the moon would be unlike anything anyone had experienced. To get a feel of flying in lunar gravity, Armstrong practiced in this, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, affectionately called the “flying bedstead.”

ANDY CHAIKIN: It was not the most stable flying machine that you could ever step into. If you tilted too far over, or if something happened to the rocket engines, you'd fall out of the sky, and you'd be dead.

DAVE SCOTT: It was difficult to fly. But on the other hand, I think we all felt that it absolutely mandatory to be able to fly that type of vehicle before you go to the moon.

NARRATOR: On one of Armstrong's flights, a failure of the fuel system meant he lost control. He was lucky to escape with his life, but he brushed it off as if nothing had happened.

ANDY CHAIKIN: And that was so classic Neil Armstrong…that he wasn't going to let that get in the way of the rest of his day. He said there was work to do, and he did it.

NARRATOR: Cape Kennedy, Florida: Over a million people came to watch Apollo 11 leave for the moon on July 16th, 1969. Among them was Armstrong's childhood friend.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: The day before the launch, we had a tour of the facilities there at Cape Kennedy, and we stood in front of the rocket, while my wife took our picture. And we shook our hands and said congratulations, that we finally got Neil on a good job, at last, and then we gave him a salute.

JUNE HOFFMAN: We didn't say goodbye, it was more like, “Good luck” And it was just…he leaned over and gave me a little peck on the cheek, just a little bitty kiss. And then he turned around and was gone.

APOLLO 11 MISSION CONTROL (Audio Archive): Launch manager Paul Donnel wishes the crew Good luck and godspeed. Neil Armstrong reported back when he received the wishes “Thank you very much. We know it will be a good flight.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: My wife took the movies. I was taking 35-millimeter shots.

APOLLO 11 MISSION CONTROL (Audio Archive): Liftoff! We have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour, on Apollo 11.

RICK ARMSTRONG: You feel it, you know? Your body feels it inside. It shakes in a way that nothing else does.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: I just kept saying, “Go Neil, go Neil, go Neil, go Neil, go Neil.”

NARRATOR: Four days later, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin would arrive at the moon. Then they'd attempt one of the most daring exploits in human history.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): We were certainly aware that the nation's hopes largely rested on us doing the very best job we could.

MISSION CONTROL (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): And Armstrong and Aldrin within the L.M., that will be their home for the next 30 hours or so.

NARRATOR: As they descended towards the surface in the lunar module, the Eagle, the world held its breath, as did Mike Collins orbiting above, in Columbia, the command module.

MIKE COLLINS: I figured that our chances of 100 percent success were about 50/50. There were just so many things that could go wrong.

NARRATOR: Collins was soon proved right.

CHARLIE DUKE (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): We've lost data with the Eagle.

CHARLIE DUKE: As they went around the moon, looking at their trajectory, the bottom fell out. We started having communication problems and data dropout.

MIKE COLLINS (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Eagle, Columbia. I'm reading you loud and scratchy. Neil's not coming through too well on his VOX.

NARRATOR: Then Eagle's computer began to raise a series of alarms.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Program alarm!

NARRATOR: With so many computations to make, it had become overloaded.

ANDY CHAIKIN: The danger wasn't the big worry really, it was the complexity. I mean, nobody had ever tried a manned rocket landing before.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm.

BUZZ ALDRIN: Neither of us knew what 1202 meant. We knew where we could find the answer, but it was in a document about that thick. And we'd have to leaf through it, and here we are halfway down, landing on the moon. But there's a bunch of guys back on Earth. They can look it up.

NARRATOR: In mission control, the team found an answer in 23 seconds. Ignore the alarm. It's a computer glitch caused by overloading.

BACKROOM MISSION CONTROL (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): We're go on that flight.

GENE KRANZ (Flight director, Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Roger. We're go on that alarm?

CHARLIE DUKE (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Roger. We've got you, we're go on that alarm.

Eagle, Houston. You're go for landing. Over.

NARRATOR: Now just 3,000 feet above the surface, everything hinged on the skill of one man.

JANET ARMSTRONG: Oh, I was in my bedroom. We were tracking it on a map, as they pointed out, verbally, where they were.

NARRATOR: Low on fuel, Armstrong still needed a safe place to land.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): It was a fairly steep slope, and it was covered with very big rock, and it just wasn't a very good place to land.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Pretty rocky area.

CHARLIE DUKE: The old Neil took over, and he was focused on doing a landing.

BUZZ ALDRIN: That was his one opportunity in a lifetime to make a landing on the moon.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Looks like a good area here.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): I wanted to make it as easy for myself as I could.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): I got a good spot here.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Oral History Interview): There was a lot of concern about coming close to running out of fuel.

CHARLIE DUKE (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Thirty seconds! Thirty seconds!

NARRATOR: Only 30 seconds of fuel remained. Everything depended on Armstrong.

CHARLIE DUKE (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Contact light. Okay, engines stop. We've had shut down.

MISSION CONTROL (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): We copy you down, Eagle! Stand by for T-One.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: I just jumped up and down and, and screamed and cried and yelled and everything.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

MIKE COLLINS: I was in orbit, of course, when they landed, and I gave a little sigh of relief.

NARRATOR: For Armstrong, this was the culmination of a career that had constantly pushed his flying skills and his nerve to the limit.

ANDY CHAIKIN: It's almost as if you, if you were going to design the career of somebody who was going to do the first landing on the moon, I can't imagine how you would put together a better mix of experiences than the ones Neil Armstrong had.

NARRATOR: With the astronauts safely down, press attention turned to their wives.

From Janet, everyone wanted to know what Neil would say when he first stepped outside.

REPORTER (Clip): Do you have any inkling on what he's going to say? He wouldn't tell us. What he's going to say? He wouldn't tell us.

JANET ARMSTRONG (Clip): I've no idea what he's going to say, but whatever he says, I'm sure it will be worthwhile.

NARRATOR: But Armstrong had given it some thought before, as his brother Dean remembers.

DEAN ARMSTRONG: Before he went to the Cape, he invited me down to be with him and to spend a little time with him. He said, “Why don't you and I, when the boys go to bed, play a little game of Risk?” And I said, “Well, I'd enjoy that.”

We started playing Risk. Then he slipped me a piece of paper and said, “Read that.” And I did, and on that piece of paper there was “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

He says, “What do you think about that?” I said, “Fabulous.”

ANDY CHAIKIN: People have had so many different versions of when and how Neil thought up those words.

DEAN ARMSTRONG: It was, “That's one small step for a man,” okay?

ANDY CHAIKIN: What he said when he came back from the flight was that he had given some thought to it before the mission, but he didn't decide what to say until he and Buzz were on the surface of the moon, in the lunar module, before they got suited up to go outside.

MISSION CONTROL (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): And we're getting a picture on the T.V.

JUNE HOFFMAN: It was somewhat difficult to see. It's…I mean, we were watching our sets like this, because we weren't quite sure if he was coming down the step.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Okay, I'm going to step off the L.M. now.

That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.

CHARLIE DUKE: Perfect! It was pure Neil.

BUZZ ALDRIN: I was pretty close to him when he said that. He was really surprising in how would say just the right thing at the right time.

DEAN ARMSTRONG: Oh I, it's a… overjoyed, you know? Unbelievable. I've never had such great feelings in my life.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Ain't that something! Magnificent sight out here.

BUZZ ALDRIN: Magnificent desolation.

PAT COLLINS (Wife of Mike Collins): Finally, it began to sink in with me, “That really is another planet.”

MISSION CONTROL (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): The EVA is progressing beautifully. I believe they are setting up the flag now.

NARRATOR: After years of preparation, the first two human beings on the moon simply marveled at what they were seeing.

BUZZ ALDRIN (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): That looks beautiful from here, Neil.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): It has a stark beauty all of its own. It's like much of the high deserts of the United States. It's different, but it's very pretty out here.

NARRATOR: Two and half hours later, the pair had both climbed back inside Eagle.

MISSION CONTROL (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): We'd like to say, from all of us and all the countries in the entire world, we think that you've done a magnificent job up there today.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Apollo 11 Mission Audio): Thank you…Couldn't have enjoyed it as much as we did!

BUZZ ALDRIN: He got me there. He got me back safe. And I, I made a, a couple of mistakes. Fortunately, they, they were not that crucial, and I'm not going to tell you about them.

NARRATOR: A brief period in quarantine would be the crew's only respite before madness erupted. Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer and test pilot from small town America, was suddenly a celebrity.

JANET ARMSTRONG: We did New York, Chicago and L.A., all in one day. There was thousands and thousands of people, and people from windows above, and apartments and so on. It was fabulous! It was like nothing I'd ever seen before in my life or ever had done before in my life.

NARRATOR: The schedule was punishing, with the astronauts placed into the role of international ambassadors. With their wives, they visited 23 countries in just 45 days. Their mission now was to shake hands with the world, and everyone was eager to meet the first man on the moon.

PAT COLLINS: We went to each country, and it would be, of course, a huge welcome at the airport, which called for a speech; a huge luncheon or something, which called for a speech; and then there would be the major state dinner, which called for a speech! And I always felt that Neil had the responsibility, the burden, if you will, of always saying the perfect thing. He was the star. But I have to say he had a pretty darn good supporting cast.

JANET ARMSTRONG: This was the beginning. This was the beginning of it all. But there was nothing you could do, these people were just happy to see you!

ANDY CHAIKIN: One of the other Apollo astronauts told me that when it comes to fame, it's like they're all a college football team, and Neil is the only guy in the N.F.L. I mean, he was on another plane.

JUNE HOFFMAN: People wanted a piece of him, I either “want your autograph,” or “I want my picture taken with you.” And I think that it wasn't just anyone, it was everyone.

NARRATOR: The intense level of intrusion into Armstrong's life would eventually start to take its toll on him and his family.

RICK ARMSTRONG: To be out to dinner, and sort of minding your own business, and to have people coming up to you and going, “Oh, do you know who that is?” Coming over, and “May I have your autograph please?” After a while, even if they do it in the nicest possible way, which many of them did, still, it just wears you out, after a while.

JANET ARMSTRONG: And he really didn't know what he wanted to do, also. That was a problem: “What am I going to do now?”

NARRATOR: In 1971, Armstrong resigned from NASA. He chose, instead, to pursue his first love, aircraft design, and accepted a professorship at the University of Cincinnati, back in his home state.

JANET ARMSTRONG: We were looking for a place to live, and he wanted to live out in the country. I guess he wanted to escape people. He wanted privacy.

NARRATOR: The Armstrongs bought this secluded farm, in Ohio. It was a radical change of lifestyle, and not just for Neil.

MARK ARMSTRONG: I'm not sure that Mom really wanted the farm life, but she did very well, and she was a trouper.

NARRATOR: Janet found herself managing the farm, as Neil concentrated on teaching, but escaping his fame was never going to be easy.

RON HUSTON (University of Cincinnati): Whenever Neil Armstrong came onto the campus, there was a number of rather interesting reactions.

RALPH SPITZEN (Former Student of Neil Armstrong): Well, the first day was rather chaotic. As class was letting out, the media was massed outside the classroom, and he did, in fact, push the students out of the classroom and then quickly close the door, with himself inside of the classroom.

NARRATOR: Eventually, behind the closed doors of academia, Armstrong found refuge from the constant public spotlight.

RON HUSTON: I began to think of him as simply “Neil,” not as “Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon.” I just thought of him as Neil.

NARRATOR: But outside the university, the burden of celebrity still sat uncomfortably with him.

JANET ARMSTRONG: He was given the credit, and he didn't think he deserved it all.

NARRATOR: Armstrong eventually opted to ration his interview requests, creating, in some minds, the mistaken impression that he was a recluse.

RICK ARMSTRONG: He just didn't feel the need to notify the media about what he was doing, you know, so a “media recluse” maybe, but that's a completely different thing.

NARRATOR: In 1979, Armstrong left the university, becoming involved as a business spokesman and serving on many corporate and philanthropic boards.

ANDY CHAIKIN: He was doing so many different things with his time, but they were the things that he chose to do, and that didn't include living out his life in front of a television camera.

NARRATOR: And in 1986, he was appointed vice-chair of the Rogers Commission, the committee that investigated the tragic events that led to the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

JUNE HOFFMAN: His calendar was double parked all the time.

MARK ARMSTRONG: He was a workaholic, and that was just in his D.N.A. So it was Dad's strong work ethic and Mom's isolation on the farm that eventually came between them.

NARRATOR: Janet and Neil separated in 1990, divorcing four years later.

MARK ARMSTRONG: I just think it sort of opened his eyes a little bit and made him aware that, that he didn't have to work all the time. And that was very good for him. It put him in a great position to meet other people.

PAT COLLINS: All the men have certainly, as we say, quietly, “mellowed.” So that they are more relaxed, they are more ready to just spend time doing something just for fun.

NICHELLE NICHOLS (Star Trek): Dr. Neil Armstrong, ladies and gentlemen.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (At Star Trek Convention): Thank you, so much! The method we used to descend from orbit to an alien world worked, but it would have been far more efficient and far less traumatic, if we could have just been beamed down!

NARRATOR: But Armstrong was far less sanguine about the direction the real space program was taking and testified before Congress, in 2010.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (Testifying Before Congress/File Footage): If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered.

ANDY CHAIKIN: I saw in him and in the other Apollo astronauts a frustration that, here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and we're still confined to those first couple of hundred miles above the earth. And I think it was a source of frustration to him.

NARRATOR: Armstrong turned 80 in 2010, and, to mark the occasion, his second wife, Carol Knight, planned a celebration.

CAROL KNIGHT (Neil Armstrong's Second Wife): I thought we could have a surprise party, and it would be a lot of fun. And I had about 250 people on the list.

I think he was surprised. He put on a good act if he wasn't.

KOTCHO SOLACOFF: After almost everybody had left and I went up to him and congratulated him on his birthday and everything, and, and he hugged me. And he says, “You know I love you,” and I said, “I do too, Neil. We go back a long way,” He said, “Yes, we do.” And that was the last time.

NARRATOR: On the 7th of August, 2012, Neil Armstrong was admitted to the hospital for heart surgery. He remained there until his death on August 25th.

MARK ARMSTRONG: If there's a legacy, I think he may have left it already. He very much wanted the exploration of space to be an accomplishment that was important for, for this planet and everyone on it.

CHARLIE DUKE: His inspiration to the generations that will follow is incalculable, I believe.

RICK ARMSTRONG: It's overwhelming to think about how much has come from that inspiration.

MARK ARMSTRONG: If there was something that he could pass along to, you know, future generations, I think it would be the conviction to do the right thing.

ANDY CHAIKIN: I mean, he went to the moon. He risked his life for the nation for a, a mission of national importance, and he did it superbly. And that would be reason enough to call Neil Armstrong a hero. But, for me, the thing that really stands out is how he handled this role that fate gave him of being a world icon.

JUNE HOFFMAN: One thing, he was true to himself. He was the man that you saw. That was him.

Broadcast Credits

Ben Bowie
Christopher Riley
Duncan Copp
David Fairhead
Chris Purcell
Mike Nolan
Corey Johnson
Sarah Kinsella
Lenka Menkynova
Jay Radosavljevic
Ivo Hanak
Yuni Aziz
Steve Cookman
Julia Pearce
Ulla Streib
Paul Gardner
AP Archive
BBC Motion Gallery
Critical Past
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Wende Doohan
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Andy Chaikin
James Hansen
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John Stoll
Kelly Humphries
Dryden Flight Research Center
Christian Gelzer
Alan Brown
Jim Round
Edwards Air Force Base
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John Haire
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Eric Jones
Apollo Surface Journal
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Apollo Flight Journal
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Nathan Gunner
Elizabeth Benjes
David Condon
Pamela Rosenstein
Laurie Cahalane
Evan Hadingham
Julia Cort Chris Schmidt
Melanie Wallace
Alan Ritsko
Paula S. Apsell

Produced by DSP for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with BBC

© 2013 Darlow Smithson Productions Ltd.

All Rights Reserved

Additional Material © 2014 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.


Image credit: (Neil Armstrong)
© Bettmann/CORBIS


Buzz Aldrin
Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot
Carol Armstrong
Neil's Second Wife
Dean Armstrong
Neil's Brother
Janet Armstrong
Neil's First Wife
Mark Armstrong
Neil's Younger Son
Rick Armstrong
Neil's Elder Son
Andrew Chaikin
Space Historian
Mike Collins
Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot
Pat Collins
Wife of Mike Collins
Charlie Duke
Apollo 11 CAPCOM
June Hoffman
Neil's Sister
Ron Huston
Neil's Director at UC
Kotcho Solacoff
Childhood Friend
Ralph Spitzen
Neil's Student at UC

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