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From the moon to UC: new movie showcases Armstrong

Hollywood biopic ‘First Man’ chronicles the achievements of the late Neil Armstrong, an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati

The first man to walk on the moon was so humble about the achievement that he never spoke of it to his aerospace engineering students at the University of Cincinnati.

After returning to Earth, Neil Armstrong left NASA to become a professor in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. He had offers from universities around the country to serve as their president but chose UC because of its vaunted aerospace program and his simple desire to teach students about his first love, flying.

Armstrong died in 2012. He is the subject of the new biopic “First Man” opening Oct. 12 that chronicles America’s dangerous and ambitious mission to set foot on the moon through the eyes of the person who first did it, the decorated Korean War veteran, test pilot and mild-mannered teacher.

Armstrong’s former students say nobody loved flying more than he did. As a 15-year-old in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong would ride his bicycle to the local airfield to take flying lessons even before he got his driver’s license. And while he was eager to share his enthusiasm for aerospace, his students would learn little about his most famous mission, Apollo 11, which won America’s space race with the former Soviet Union.

“He never told stories about the space program,” former student Mark Stear (Eng ’78) said. “In a social setting, he would engage. But he never initiated those conversations about space. He was just the most humble guy. He was always anxious to talk about airplanes.”

UC professor Neil Armstrong lectures at a blackboard full of equations.

After setting foot on the moon, former NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong taught engineering at UC from 1971 to 1980. Photo/UC Creative Services

To call Armstrong taciturn was an understatement, Apollo 11 crew member Buzz Aldrin said in his 1989 book “Men from Earth.” Aldrin called Armstrong “one of the quietest, most private guys I’d ever met.

“He was not the hard-drinking, fast-driving ‘right-stuffer’ the public seemed to think all the astronauts were,” Aldrin wrote.

Neil Armstrong straddles a bench of bleachers while he focuses on folding a paper airplane.

UC engineering professor Neil Armstrong and his students fold paper airplanes to learn about flight mechanics. Photo/Ralph Spitzen, UC alumnus and former Armstrong student

Aldrin and Armstrong had contrasting personalities. Aldrin cracked the first joke on the moon when in closing the hatch of the Eagle lander he quipped he was “making sure not to lock it on my way out.”

Students at UC also found Armstrong to be surprisingly reserved for someone who strived to push the boundaries of human accomplishment in feats requiring equal parts daring and discipline.

“He would stay in his office. He wasn’t roaming the halls at Baldwin. He would put on his sunglasses and find the shortest distance to get somewhere — head down,” Stear recalled.

Armstrong was an international celebrity despite his misgivings about fame. More than 70 news outlets from as far away as Europe stood elbow-to-elbow at the press conference announcing his appointment to UC. Armstrong set an early tone. To avoid favoritism, he granted no personal interviews, except to the UC student newspaper The News Record. And during his nine-year tenure at UC, he declined most all other interview requests.

Stear, who grew up in upstate New York, applied to UC after learning that his childhood hero was teaching there.

“I saw a news blurb that he was going to be a professor of aerospace engineering. I thought, ‘aerospace. That’s cool,’” he said.

Dozens of news cameras crowd around Neil Armstrong at a podium announcing his decision to teach at UC.

More than 70 news outlets from as far away as Europe covered the news conference announcing Neil Armstrong's appointment to UC. He rarely gave interviews. Photo/UC Creative Services

Everyone who had him as a professor felt very privileged.

Mark Stear UC graduate

A black and white image of a spacesuit boot next to its footprint on the moon.

Neil Armstrong captures a shot of his spacesuit boot next to its footprint on the moon. Among his many titles, Armstrong was also a famous photographer. His iconic images have been seen around the world. Photo/NASA

UC was one of the first universities in the world to launch an aerospace program. At UC, Armstrong taught courses on aerodynamics and flight mechanics. He also worked with UC chemist George Rieveschl and Dr. Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich maneuver, to develop an artificial heart pump. In 1979, Armstrong continued to set aeronautic records when he flew a commercial Learjet to 50,000 feet in 12 minutes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for a company demonstration.

Armstrong served on the board of Gates Learjet, along with several other companies. He resigned from the university in 1980 to pursue new business projects but returned to UC in 1982 to accept an honorary doctorate.

“Everyone who had him as a professor felt very privileged,” said Stear, who considers Armstrong to be the best professor he ever had. Armstrong inspired his career in aviation sales, he said.

“He could stand there and derive an aerodynamics or control theory from memory on the chalkboard. And then he would put the chalk down and sit on his desk and talk about his flight test days and how those principles played out in actual tests,” Stear said. “That was rare for any professor to do that. To say here’s a theory and here’s where you’ll see it in practice.”

Even if Armstrong never let his two space missions define him, his students couldn’t help but think about where he had been and what he had done. Stear recalled staring at Armstrong’s shoes in class and thinking about the famous Life magazine photo Armstrong took of his spacesuit boot next to his footprint in the moon dust.

“That’s the foot right there. It blows you away,” Stear said.

I am and ever will be a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer. It is a profession which leaves its imprint on society in countless ways. … Science is about what is. Engineering is about what can be.

Neil Armstrong in a 2000 speech to the National Press Club

Apollo 11 takes off from Kennedy Space Center as viewed from the top of the launchpad.

Apollo 11 takes off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. As many as a million spectators, including UC engineering professor George "Tom" Black, watched the spectacle in Florida. Photo/NASA

UC engineering graduate Dan Littmann (1976) spent his career in aviation labs and earned a commercial pilot’s license. He credited his time at UC for giving him a foundation for his engineering career. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact the Apollo missions had, both in technology and inspiration for future generations, he said.

“I doubt the world will ever again see the rate of technological progress achieved during the 1960s,” Littmann said. “To be sure, it was the Cold War that spawned Apollo. Interest in spaceflight died off quickly once the race to the moon was won.”

UC engineering professor George “Tom” Black was 15 when his family loaded up the car at four in the morning while on vacation in Florida and drove an hour in the dark to Titusville. The coastal town was rural and small, so thick with mosquitoes that the county misted the marshes with pesticides to make it habitable. But in the 1960s, it was known by another name — Space City, USA.

As the family car crested the north side of Titusville, Black could see what brought them there: a rocket standing 36 stories tall, lighted on all sides and venting hydrogen gas like a dragon.

They lucked into a good parking spot and set up lawn chairs and radios to wait for the launch of the spacecraft that would land the first humans on the moon. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded around Merritt Island to watch in what became a communal festival, Black recalled.

George "Tom" Black holds a plastic model of an F-22 in his UC engineering office.

UC engineering professor George "Tom" Black holds a model of the F-22 fighter plane he helped develop for the U.S. military. Black was an undergraduate engineering student of Armstrong's at UC and for years has taught the same class on flight testing as his idol. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Black set up his telescope to get a better view of the spectacle. As the countdown reached “3” and the engines roared to life, the light from their flames was too bright to watch.

“All of a sudden it takes off. Everybody for miles on the waterfront made a big, ‘Whoa!’” he said. “It sounded like you were inside a continuous thunderstorm, like you were inside the sound. And that was from 11 miles away.”

The light was intense as well, a blinding white that turned into a welder’s torch blue, he recalled.

“You could see the shock diamonds in the exhaust,” Black said.

By the time Black and his family packed up the car and escaped the Florida launch traffic, Armstrong, Aldrin and astronaut Michael Collins had orbited the Earth twice and were on their way to the moon. Even as a teenager, Black knew he had witnessed something historic.

“How often in your life do you see something like that?”

A white flight helmet in the foreground sits on a desk with George "Tom" Black off-focus in the background.

UC engineering professor George "Tom" Black keeps his uncle's flight helmet from the Vietnam War in his office. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

Black dreamed of being an aerospace engineer, like fellow West Virginian Homer Hickam, subject of the best-selling memoir and 1999 movie “October Sky” about a high school student whose passion for rocket science carries him away from a destiny in the coal mines.

“You got the sense from Homer Hickam’s book that he was discouraged from going into aerospace,” Black said. “But I was eight years younger than he was. And while he came from a small town, I lived in Huntington, the second-largest city in the state at the time. Wanting to become an aerospace engineer had long become accepted.”

Black decided to come to UC after visiting the campus and its College of Engineering and Applied Science in high school.

“A few months later, I learned that Neil Armstrong was going to be teaching at my university,” Black said.

A portrait of UC professor George "Tom" Black

UC professor George "Tom" Black

Black took Armstrong’s introduction to aerodynamics class and his signature class in aircraft flight testing. While at UC, Black returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the 1975 launch of another Apollo spacecraft, which would dock in orbit with the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for an astronaut summit in space. Black said he was eager to share his photos of the launch with Armstrong when he returned to campus.

“He wasn’t the most captivating speaker. But he was fascinating in his own way. Anything he told you about airplanes, you realized he had probably tried it and did the math to figure out how it worked,” Black said. “He had an excellent ability to teach. He wanted you to learn the subject so you could think like an engineer.”

Black got his pilot’s license while studying at UC. He still flies today. He applied his UC degree to an engineering career perfecting the flight performance of the U.S. Air Force’s advanced fighter aircraft, in particular the F-22 Raptor. Black worked as a test pilot like Armstrong while conducting graduate research at Ohio State University.

“I considered that to be as big a part of my technical education as my degrees,” Black said.

Today, Black teaches the same class on flight-test engineering that he took with Armstrong as an undergraduate.

Neil Armstrong and 10 of his engineering students pose in front of a jet on an airport tarmac.

George "Tom" Black poses with his engineering classmates and UC professor Neil Armstrong, far left, in front of a training jet as part of a UC engineering course on flight test engineering. Today, Black teaches the same class at UC. Photo/Provided by George "Tom" Black

In an otherwise rave review of “First Man,” Entertainment Weekly called Armstrong “maybe the most enigmatic and mysterious true American hero this country has ever produced” and faulted the film for failing to reveal Armstrong as anything more than a cipher.

But Stear said behind the reserved exterior, Armstrong was warm and generous.

“He never said no,” Stear said. “He would always make time for you.”

After graduating from UC in 1978, getting married and landing his first job at Learjet, Stear and his new bride took a drive out to Lebanon to pay a visit to his former professor.

“My wife won’t drop in on her best friend unannounced. She protested, ‘You can’t just walk up to the front door!’” he said.

“He comes walking around the house with a flannel shirt and blue jeans and invited us in,” Stear said. “We sat in his library for 45 minutes. He was very gracious.”

The "blue planet" Earth stands in contrast as it rises over the distant horizon of the barren moon.

The Apollo 11 crew captured the Earth rising over the moon. Photo/NASA

Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

Neil Armstrong, from the surface of the moon

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.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon in his spacesuit next to an American flag.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands next to the American flag the Apollo crew planted on the surface of the moon. Photo/NASA

A portrait of astronaut Neil Armstrong in his spacesuit.

Neil Armstrong Photo/NASA

UC Magazine covers Neil Armstrong

Armstrong Collection: UC's Engineering Library assembled a tribute to the astronaut.

News Obituary: The professor left quite a mark on the university community.

Averting Catastrophe: His brushes with danger extended to campus parking.

No Cheese: The professor pens a poem for children about his remarkable "summer vacation." 

Commencement Address: UC awarded the famous pilot an honorary degree in 1982. Read his commencement address to graduates.


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