As the nation mourns one of its heroes, historians and other admirers say Neil Armstrong should be celebrated as more than just the first man on the moon.
Astronaut, aviator and teacher, Armstrong had made his mark in the Korean War and flying experimental aircraft to the edge of space, long before his famous first moments on the moon. A national memorial service in Washington, D.C., is planned on Sept. 12 for Armstrong, whose private funeral was held on Friday.
"He had a remarkable life, beyond walking on the moon," says historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. As a Navy fighter pilot, Armstrong flew off aircraft carriers on combat missions that served as the basis for the 1954 film The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which ended with the line, "Where do we get such men?"
Armstrong's last job before becoming an astronaut in 1962 was flying the rocket-powered X-15 aircraft, the world's first spaceplane. He took off from California's Edwards Air Force Base, "the apex of the great ziggurat" for test pilots, as the author Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, his recounting of the space race. Armstrong flew the X-15, the Bell X-1 (the first plane to break the sound barrier) and likely would have flown the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a space-plane launched atop a rocket that was canceled in 1963, to much consternation among space advocates. All told, he flew about 200 aircraft, according to NASA, and among them he piloted the first docking of two space vehicles in the 1966 Gemini 8 mission.
"He flew basically everything, he was a dedicated test pilot," says Steve Rainey, president of the Society for Experimental Test Pilots (SETP), based in Lancaster, Calif. "As much as Neil Armstrong did for the moon race, he and his generation of pilots did at least as much for flight safety."
Started in 1955 near Edwards Air Force Base, SETP numbered Armstrong among its first 65 founders, says Rainey. Armstrong was part of a generation of test pilots who moved their discipline into an era of rigorous engineering-based communication, Rainey says. "The accident rate was a lot higher then," Rainey says. "And these pilots came together and said, 'We have to have open communication about problems.' That spirit is still true for test pilots today."
Rainey says that Armstrong's dedication hit home for him with the " Flying Bedstead," the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle used by NASA's Apollo mission astronauts to train to land on the moon. Deke Slayton, the head of the astronaut corps then, said the practice craft, which was basically a seat next to a jet engine steered with two rockets, was the only way to learn to land on the moon. Armstrong ejected from one that crashed on May 6, 1968, a little more than a year before he piloted the real lunar lander to the moon's surface on July 20, 1969. (Only about 25 seconds of fuel was left in the Eagle lander in the end, but Armstrong stayed cool on that day. And no wonder: He had already survived the Flying Bedstead and the Korean War.)