The Most Influential
People in History
Neil Alden Armstrong
1930 – 2012
Exploration Ranking 21st of 26
Armstrong steps onto the moon. U.S. stamp, 1969.
In 1969, as commander of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on Earth’s moon. This represented a whole new level of exploration for humankind. In addition, this singular achievement was the culmination of years of technological advances. The Apollo space program cost about $177 billion in 2019 dollars, and required a decade of work from more than 400,000 Americans.(1) Watched by an estimated 600 million people worldwide, the grainy black-and-white television images of Armstrong taking his first lunar stroll firmly established him as one of the great heroes of the 20th century.
President Kennedy’s Speech
Armstrong’s stroll on the Moon was the culmination of a massive new program that had its roots in a speech President Kennedy gave to Congress on May 25, 1961. He unveiled a mission that was astonishing for its scope:
We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It was masterful in its expression of a clear vision, with a clear goal, and a clear deadline. No president had ever challenged the nation with such a wildly improbable undertaking.(2)
I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment. But in a very real sense it will not be one man going to the Moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.
By enlisting all Americans, Kennedy signaled the immense scope and scale of the effort. He then put his political capital on the line by attaching real numbers to a project that was far from a sure bet:
Let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: 531 million dollars in fiscal ’62—an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.
Until Kennedy’s speech, American’s total flight time in space was the fifteen minutes Al Shepard spent in a suborbital hop on Freedom 7. The Soviets, by comparison, were beating America every step of the way. It began with the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, followed by Yuri Gagarin grabbing the historic headline of being the first human to orbit the Earth in 1961. America’s political and business leaders were legitimately starting to panic that the Soviets were surpassing the United States in the sciences and the new frontier of space. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Russians propagandized their success as proof that Communism was a superior political and economic system to American’s capitalist democracy. On top of that, Kennedy had just suffered his first humiliating foreign policy disaster at the Bay of Pigs, in Cuba, when 1,400 American-trained Cubans were defeated by troops of the newly installed Communist leader, Fidel Castro. It was a pivotal moment in world affairs, and Congress was sufficiently scared and motivated to fund Kennedy’s request. “Politically it was about beating the Russians,” said Ed Mitchell (astronaut, sixth person to walk on the Moon), “but those of us with a science bent, a curious bent, knew it was much more than that.”
Kennedy gave us the key imperative to meet his goal,” says Borman, former astronaut and commander of Gemini 8, the first mission to fly around the Moon. “Number one we had a clear mission to get to the Moon and back in the decade of the sixties. And number two, we had the support of the Congress; we had the support of the president; and we had the support of the people—there was almost unanimous support, particularly in the beginning—for the space program; and then we had people that were willing to dedicate everything to make it go. It was in my estimation almost like a maximum war effort. And it made the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), quite frankly, a wonderful place to work.”
At an age when most American teenagers get a driver’s license, Armstrong became a licensed pilot on his sixteenth birthday and a naval air cadet the following year (1947). His studies in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University were interrupted in 1950 by the Korean War, during which he was shot down once and was awarded three Air Medals. In 1955, Armstrong became a civilian research pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He flew more than 1,100 hours, testing various supersonic fighters as well as the X-15 rocket plane.
In 1962, he joined the space program with the second group of astronauts. On March 16, 1966, Armstrong, as command pilot of Gemini 8, and David R. Scott rendezvoued with an unmanned Agena rocket and completed the first manual space-docking maneuver. After the docking, a rocket-thruster malfunction forced them to separate from the Agena. Armstrong then regained control of the Gemini craft and made an emergency splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
First Moon Landing
On July 16, 1969, Armstrong, along with Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins, blasted off in the Apollo 11 vehicle toward the Moon. Four days later, the Eagle lunar landing module, guided manually by Armstrong, touched down on a plain near the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. At 10:56 p.m. EDT, July 20, 1969, Armstrong stepped from the “Eagle” onto the Moon’s dusty surface with the words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin left the module for more than two hours and deployed scientific instruments, collected surface samples, and took numerous photographs.
On July 21, after twenty-one hours and thirty-six minutes on the Moon, they lifted off to rendezvous with Collins and begin the voyage back to Earth. After splashdown in the Pacific at 12:51 PM EDT on July 24, the three astronauts spent eighteen days in quarantine to guard against possible contamination by lunar microbes. During the days that followed and during a tour of twenty-one nations, they were hailed for their part in the opening of a new era in humankind’s exploration of the universe. Since Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, twenty-two others traveled to the Moon, ten of whom walked on the Moon’s surface. The Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 was the last time men visited and walked on the Moon.
There is a new U.S. government space program called Artemis after the Greek Goddess, twin sister of Apollo. A key program goal is landing the first woman on the Moon, specifically at the lunar south pole region by 2024.
Armstrong believed the lunar mission was the logical extension of Columbus and Magellan, of Lewis and Clark, of Lindbergh and the Wright brothers.(3) It was no coincidence that Armstrong carried to the Moon a swatch of muslin fabric (used for the wing) and a piece of the propeller from the Kitty Hawk flight of the Wright brothers.
The impact of the U.S. space program on our daily lives is almost incalculable.(4) It initiated, pioneered or inspired advances and inventions in every kind of satellite (communications, weather, navigation, military), in medical instrumentation, in digital imaging and of course, in computers–-NASA’s early purchase of 1 million microchips kickstarted that nascent industry. In 1975, just three years after the last Apollo mission, the program’s return on investment was estimated at 15 to 1. By now it’s off the charts. It’s doubtful that any other government-funded project has yielded as many dividends.
Beyond these achievements, Apollo’s most profound legacy may be its effect on the human spirit. It was our first step–-a baby step, but an important one–-onto another celestial body, and as such, affirmed our birthrights as explorers.(5)
(1) James Donovan, “Calculating the Value of a Giant Leap for Mankind," Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2019.
(2) Basil Hero, The Mission of a Lifetime: Lessons From the Men Who Went To The Moon (New York, 2019), p. 102.
1. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, 2005.
2. First Man, 2018, 141 minutes.