I was filled with shock and sadness yesterday when I heard of the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Shock, because I hadn’t heard of any recent health issues with Armstrong, and sadness for the passing of a real American hero who inspired me to pursue a career in aerospace. While still undecided where to study aerospace engineering in the mid-70’s, I read a book about the Apollo program and the first landing on the moon. In the book, it mentioned how Neil Armstrong had received his aeronautical degree (aerospace engineering was not an option back in the 50’s) from Purdue University in 1955. That got me curious about Purdue, and the more I researched the college, the more I discovered its outstanding reputation for aerospace engineering and graduating numerous astronauts (Grissom, Chaffee, Cernan, etc.). I applied, was accepted and received my aerospace engineering degree that set me on my long career in this industry. While at Purdue, I felt honored to take classes from some of the same Professors who taught Armstrong back in the 50’s. I remember asking one of my professors who also had instructed Armstrong what he was like as a student. The professor said he was not what you would call an outstanding, “brainiac” student, but instead a hard-working, average and humble student who one would not have predicted would be the first to walk on the moon. Actually it was good for me to hear this about Armstrong, since I was basically an average engineering student myself. It made me realize that you don’t always have to be at the top of your class to have a rewarding and successful career.
Being a fellow Purdue graduate, I followed with interest Armstrong’s career after he left NASA, and I was always impressed that he remained modest about his accomplishments in the space program and shunned the public limelight. He continued to fly small planes and gliders, two of my hobbies, and returned to the classroom to teach science and engineering. He could have easily cashed in on his fame, but he chose quieter, more personally rewarding pursuits. He also never forgot Purdue, and donated money and many of his papers to the University. His generous donations allowed Purdue to build a new classroom building that houses the school of Aerospace Engineering, among others, and has been named in his honor. If you want to find out more about the life of Neil Armstrong, I highly recommend his authorized autobiography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”, by James R. Hansen, which was published in 2006.
The word “hero” is used loosely these days, and oft times is connected with sports persons, entertainers and politicians. To me the word should be used very selectively, and only applied to persons who truly deserve it. By achieving the extra-ordinary, inspiring others to great accomplishments, all the while not seeking platitudes or money, the true hero is a very rare individual indeed. By my definition of a hero, Neil Armstrong qualifies on all counts. Reading the Armstrong family announcement of his death, the last paragraph provides a lasting tribute to this real American hero:
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple
request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and
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.”