WASHINGTON – Before manned space flights began, officials pondered what background they should seek in the crew for this bizarre new venture: Danger lover? Bullfighter? Mountain climber? Should they search for people who were self-aware and calm in extreme conditions? A deep-sea diver, perhaps? Finally, they settled on — and President Dwight Eisenhower supported — experimental test pilots, people who had already guided complex new flying machines. Thus the original seven astronauts were selected in 1959.
In 1962 I was a budding test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California — our Mecca — and much interested in joining NASA’s second crew selection.
Pondering the competition, I wrote to my father on April 19 that “Neil Armstrong will be on the list … because he has by far the best background.” Neil, a former Navy fighter pilot, was a combat veteran employed by NASA at Edwards. He was testing new Air Force and Navy aircraft, as well as rocket ships. His flights in the rocket-powered X-15 alone put him a stratosphere above the rest of us.
It was no surprise that Neil advanced to make the first docking in space, as commander of Gemini 8, and then moved to Apollo, where Buzz Aldrin and I joined his crew. By then he had proven his technical competence many times over, but I didn’t really know the man behind the reputation.
Neil, who was memorialized Thursday at the National Cathedral in Washington, always seemed serious and businesslike, but you could make him laugh if you tried. It was real laughter, because Neil did not pretend. He was genuine through and through. He signaled displeasure with silence, never an outburst. He had high standards and stuck to them.
The best way to get Neil talking was to start with airplanes. He knew more about planes than anyone I’ve ever met, real ones and children’s models. We both were model builders from an early age, and we always wanted them to go higher and faster. My solution? Another few turns on the rubber band. Neil’s? Build a wind tunnel.
Wind tunnels are serious, high-tech business but one that Neil turned into fun. Before putting power to the tunnel he built in the basement, Neil invited his grandmother to stand in front of it. When he threw the switch, the wind blew her housecoat off.
Neil was smart as hell — and an encyclopedia of knowledge of things far beyond air and space. He trotted out tidbits on occasion. After the flight of Apollo 11, we went on a world tour. One evening we found ourselves in Yugoslavia at a formal dinner hosted by Marshal Tito and his wife, Madame Broz. The small talk got smaller and smaller, with madame doing a fine imitation of an Easter Island monolith: frozen, staring straight ahead. Neil bent over and started talking quietly to her, and when I strained to listen, I was astounded that he was talking about Nikola Tesla, the early electric genius and competitor of Thomas Edison. Had Neil lost his mind?
No, Madame Broz lit up like a thousand-watt bulb, and from then on we were all buddies, including even the taciturn Tito. Later I asked Neil about his choice of topic. “Oh,” he replied offhandedly, “she is related to Tesla.”
Once, while visiting a museum in Italy, Neil drew a crowd — not because he was recognized as that man on the moon but because, standing with friends before a case of Leonardo da Vinci’s model machines, he explained their intricacies in such detail that passersby assumed he was an English-speaking tour director and stopped to listen.
After the publicity of the Apollo flights died down, Neil’s quiet demeanor was criticized. Some faulted his reticence, wanting an advocate to get out and sell the space program. But by holding to his lifelong yardsticks of honesty, humility and grace, Neil did more than any salesman or huckster. Some called him a recluse, but I think they were wrong. He supported numerous causes, especially those sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, our professional society. When other Apollo flights were honored, Neil usually showed up, making the point that Apollo 11 had depended on their accomplishments. In recent years, he visited Iraq and Afghanistan. He even led cheers at a football game at his beloved alma mater, Purdue University. If this is a recluse, our nation needs more of them — people who don’t seek the limelight but can live competently in its glare, people who are the antithesis of some of today’s empty-headed celebrities.
Neil was the consummate decision-maker, which is what you look for in a mission commander. He made decisions slowly, pondering their outcome if time allowed but acting decisively when necessary. For his lunar landing he picked his spot carefully, bypassing boulder fields. When he finally set down, he had less than a minute of fuel remaining. Good decisions all the way.
Age treated Neil well. As more accolades came his way, he took them in stride. He never showed a trace of arrogance, and he had plenty to be arrogant about. It was refreshing to see him as modest as ever.
When my wife, Pat, and I had lunch with Neil and his wife, Carol, this spring, he seemed relaxed, cheerful, contented, happy. I like to remember him that way. He deserved all the good things that came his way. He was the best, and I will miss him terribly.
Michael Collins, a retired Air Force major general, was the command module pilot of Apollo 11. He remained in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969.