Armstrong grew up in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy while studying aeronautics at Purdue University. He flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War, including one in which his plane was critically damaged and he had to eject from the cockpit.
Back in the United States, Armstrong became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, California, where he flew myriad planes. This included the X-15, which was more of a rocket with wings and could reach speeds of more than 4,500 mph.
NASA picked Armstrong to become an astronaut in 1962, five years after the Russian satellite Sputnik orbited the Earth and one year after President Kennedy publicly challenged NASA to land a man on the moon by 1970. Armstrong’s first space mission, Gemini VIII, nearly ended in disaster after a malfunctioning thruster caused the spacecraft to spin uncontrollably.
“Neil and astronaut Dave Scott nearly blacked out. If that had happened, the craft would have continued to tumble and tumble until it broke apart,” Black said.
Armstrong, the mission commander, used the spacecraft’s re-entry thrusters to regain control and the crew safely returned to Earth. Armstrong reacted with similar steely skill while piloting the Eagle to a safe landing on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility after finding the designated landing spot strewn with unforgiving boulders.
“When something goes wrong, Neil was the one you wanted in the commander’s seat,” Black said.