The news that Neil Armstrong had died came suddenly and without much warning on Saturday afternoon, and from the heavens, I’m sure he was apologizing as he went to what people used to call “the great reward.”
Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, succumbed to complications of heart surgery at the age of 82. Yet he will always look a youthful age 38, his jaw firm and confident.
He was Midwestern-corny and went to great lengths to maintain his privacy. That’s one of the reasons I began to pursue an interview with him three years ago, immediately prior to the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission he commanded.
First came futile attempts to reach him through NASA (although the results were understandably predictable since Armstrong had left NASA in 1971) and Purdue University, his alma mater.
Then I reached out to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, in mid-April 2009. The site manager gave me hope of success when she provided me with a post office box address in Lebanon, Ohio, where I could contact him “directly.” Good news.
That led me to Armstrong’s research assistant, who must have been weary of requests such as mine as the anniversary approached.
“Mr. Armstrong has, for many years, restricted his interaction with the media to press conferences, held when there was a newsworthy event in which
Mr. Armstrong had important knowledge. He does not give individual interviews,” she wrote.
Fortunately for this child of the space race, the email continued.
“We have been receiving a very large number of similar requests and Mr. Armstrong has been providing e-mail responses to some of the requests. So if you have a couple of email questions that are important to your article, I will certainly present them to Mr. Armstrong for his consideration.”
This was the whiff of encouragement I was after. After all, I had actually been in the same room with Armstrong at an event at Calspan SRL Corp. in Cheektowaga in 1996. He came in and shook hands with Dennis Gabryszak, then Cheektowaga town supervisor, and Stan Keysa, then Lancaster town supervisor, and for a sliver of a second I had the opportunity to use all of my journalistic arrogance and extend my arm for a handshake and a greeting.
Instead, I froze in my tracks.
The key to the 2009 interview would be connecting the Apollo 11 anniversary with Bell Aerosystems, the Wheatfield firm that built the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle used to train astronauts in the dangerous procedures they would follow in landing on the moon.
About a month later came the reply I had waited for each and every day.
“Here are Mr. Armstrong’s responses to your questions. I hope you find them helpful,” wrote his research assistant.
His answers to my five questions were typed in separate paragraphs beneath each query. When I reread them now, I still see an older Armstrong, with his huge glasses, responding in that “gee whiz” mode. This was the Armstrong who could run from fame but not escape the lasso of history.
I asked Armstrong if a public/private partnership could revive support for NASA at a time when its budget was being cut to the core.
He replied that a situation similar to that which evolved in the early days of the U.S. space program already existed in NASA programs. He cited the space shuttle, the International Space Station and the proposed Constellation program.
“As the public becomes better informed about the objectives of the Constellation program, I expect the level of public enthusiasm to rise,” he wrote.
Unfortunately, the Constellation program was terminated the following year.
It was designed to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station and lead to future manned flights to the moon and even Mars.
Yet Armstrong was positive in his outlook. I asked if he regretted not going into space on the shuttle.
“There are many flying machines that I regret not having flown. But life is full of disappointments,” he wrote before closing his email to me.
You never disappointed us, Neil. Godspeed.
(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)