Boomers Say Good-Bye to High-Flying Hero

News came this week of the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Though not a boomer himself, being born in 1930, he was a hero amongst heroes to the Boomer Generation.

A humble man born in Ohio, he devoted his life to aviation and aeronautics. Most boomers will forever remember him for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, but Mr. Armstrong had a long association with flying as a test pilot and engineer. In fact, Neil Armstrong flew as a Navy pilot in the Korean War and was working for the organization that went on to become NASA before there were any manned American space flights. He was chosen for the Group 2 team of astronauts to train for space travel in 1962, and entered space for the first time as Command Pilot for Gemini 8. The Gemini missions were the second American manned forays into space, building on the Mercury missions flown by more boomer heroes, including Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn.

The purpose of the Gemini missions was to work out the problems that astronauts might encounter on a trip to moon. Among the issues resolved by Gemini included many firsts: the first mission to have an onboard computer; lengthening the days in space to test endurance; installing the first safety ejection seats, in-flight radar and artificial horizon systems; the first fuel cells used for electrical power; the first space walk; and in the case of Neil Armstrong, the first docking of manned and unmanned spacecraft, a crucial maneuver if men on the moon were to be able to get back home.

Gemini 8 was launched on March 16, 1966, with Neil Armstrong and David Scott in the capsule. It would be the first time a manned spacecraft was maneuvered into a docking position with another craft. The mission began like clockwork, and Armstrong commented how smoothly the docking procedure had gone. Then he noticed the craft was rolling. Unable to stop the rolling, the crew, thinking the rolling could be a problem with the onboard program running the docked unmanned vehicle, shut the docked craft down. However, the rolling continued and increased in speed. The astronauts discovered the problem was with their own spacecraft, not the docking vehicle. A thruster was stuck in the on position, causing the craft to roll uncontrollably. The actions of Command Pilot Armstrong are credited with undocking the vehicles and stopping the rolling by firing the reaction control system, which was used during re-entry to stabilize the craft. Protocol dictated that once this RCS was fired, the mission would be terminated. Armstrong prepared for the first emergency landing of the Gemini missions, and successfully splash-landed in the Pacific Ocean after just 10 hours and 41 minutes in space.

Without the Gemini missions, the Apollo program would not have been possible. Neil Armstrong’s efforts were rewarded when he was selected to be a part of the Apollo 11 mission, which was the first mission scheduled to land on the surface of the moon. Armstrong was not only the Commander of the spacecraft, but he was also awarded the honor of being the first man to set foot on the moon.

Mister Boomer, like so many boomers, watched with awe and amazement as our space heroes flew those early missions. In elementary school his teachers would wheel a black & white TV on an AV cart into the classroom so the kids could watch the launch or splashdown. As long as the mission scheduled the take-off or landing during school hours, the school let the boomers watch. In retrospect, there we were … the first TV generation bearing witness to the first Americans in space via television.

A few years earlier he had joined a city recreation baseball team, and the boys were allowed to name their own team. Mister B was happy to concur when one of his teammates suggested The Astronauts. We were all smitten by the Space Race. By the time Apollo 11 took off for the moon, Mister B was a teen with a drivers license, but his passion for space had not waned with age. Mister B watched the take-off along with his family, minus his brother.

The launch was to be just a few days before Brother Boomer’s nineteenth birthday. He announced to the family that he was taking a vacation trip, and would call when he got there. We did not know at the time that his destination was Florida. He had intended to go see the launch in person. Brother Boomer loaded his gear into his 1965 Mustang with the white vinyl top and chrome reverse wheels and hit the road. Three days later he called to say he was in Florida. Though he never made it all the way to Cape Kennedy, he was able to watch the launch from a beach less than 100 miles away.”You could clearly see the rocket and the flame behind it was hundreds of times larger than the rocket itself. That’s what you really saw. I did not realize how big that would be. If the rocket was one inch, a speck, the flame must have been a half mile wide and a mile long. The smoke trail was like a science fiction movie,” Brother Boomer said in a recent comment. Mister B was floored. If his brother had said where he was going, he surely would have begged to go along. That’s probably why Brother Boomer didn’t say anything. Who wants a younger brother hanging around when you are nineteen and on a Florida beach?

The moon landing meant many things to many people, but it united the world for one shining moment and sparked the imaginations of countless boomers. When we watched grainy, scratchy black and white images as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the moon, uttering his famous “one small step” phrase, we were surely a generation that felt anything was possible. Speaking for a great many boomers, Mister B feels it is safe to say our generation’s sense of awe and pride never diminished for Neil Armstrong, a boomer hero as much now as then.

What did watching Neil Armstrong in space mean to you, boomers?