Was Neil Armstrong the wrong choice?

August 29, 2012

I was inspired myself as a young person (I entered high school the fall after the first moon landing) not just by all the astronauts, but by two in particular. The first was John Glenn. I watched the launch of his orbital flight on a little black and white TV in our classroom. I must have been in second grade. Back then we did that, especially Glenn’s flight. It wasn’t just a technical achievement, but a “keep up with the Russians” flight. I was a small-town kid from Ohio and back then I had dreams of being one of those folks who first landed on Mars.

Watch the film “The Right Stuff.” We really did see Glenn like that – the decorated fighter pilot, the upstanding Marine, the hero. And a guy who would not embarrass himself, the program, or the country.

Ultimately, Glenn became a liberal Democrat and I was very disappointed in him. He wasn’t a huge promoter of the program after that until he had the chance to ride the Shuttle.

I’m not saying anything bad about Neil Armstrong here – he was a brilliant man, a hardworking man, a man with great courage and dedication. As we look back on the Apollo program, it amazes me what was done with the technology of the time. The courage of the Apollo astronauts knew no bounds. But…

I sometimes think that NASA chose Armstrong to head that mission was not just because he was a civilian (Buzz was a military man, and thus denied the honor, and he’s been chafing about it ever since) but because he was so darned humble. He was the astronaut least likely to capitalize on his hero status. That helped the NASA flacks feel he wouldn’t get out of control.

John Glenn got too big for them. They had learned their lesson in 1962. They wouldn’t fly him again because he had become a “National Treasure.”  But Buzz – Buzz could have said anything after Apollo 11 – and he did. I think it worked against us in the long run.

If Buzz or someone else who enjoyed the limelight more would have had the label “The First Moonwalker,” he could have exploited that during the 1970s when public support of space exploration evaporated. Instead, Armstrong was silent. Buzz fought the good fight, but he was always “the second guy.” That’s why he finally had to go to the point of noting that the first words spoken when the LM was on the Moon were not “Tranquility Base…” by Armstrong, but “Contact light,” said by Buzz as the first probe from the footpad made contact with the lunar surface. I guess then they were technically on the moon.

But somebody who actually legally changed his name to “Buzz” (from “Edwin”) would have been the Right Stuff personified. He’s been very visible, still traveling around the world and speaking. He even did “Dancing with the Stars” for cryin’ out loud. He just looks right – Neil looked like the guy who ran the hardware store, who lived down the street. Buzz looked like, well…Buzz.

The guy who was supposed to be the hands-down favorite for the first man on the Moon was Iven Kincheloe. Purdue grad from 1949 – the same school Armstrong attended – decorated fighter pilot, test pilot and the guy who had more “Right Stuff” than anyone. I’m not sure NASA would have been too happy with the First Moonwalker being named Iven, but he looked like he stepped right out of a movie:

Kinch never even got into the astronaut selection process. He was killed in a test flight crash at Edwards in 1958. Before that time, if you would have asked any of the test pilots, he would have been the guy. Everybody else was second choice. Chuck Yeager, the original Right Stuff guy, was definitely NOT a poster child for NASA. He was kind of a rebel. He was the guy all the other pilots looked up to and wanted to be like. He would have looked awesome:

Read his autobiography…he wasn’t a college man, he was self-educated to a great degree. He had that West Virginia drawl, that the media even then would have probably found funny…but all the other test pilots tried to sound like him. (He and Oklahoma native Jack Ridley, another one we lost too soon.)

But he had guts. He could improvise. He also had no interest in the Mercury missions because the astronauts didn’t fly the capsule. It was a “capsule,” not a space ship. The Mercury Seven rebelled about the “spam in a can” philosophy of the German scientists running the Mercury program. They were a lot happier launching monkeys, to be honest. The astronauts were to have no control over the ship at all… and then, after the Seven insisted, it turned out it was necessary. Gordo Cooper, in the last Mercury flight, Faith 7, had to execute the entire landing sequence manually (with information from John Glenn on the ground) after the automatic system failed. He made the most accurate landing of the program – only four miles from the aircraft carrier!

I mean no respect to Neil Armstrong at all. He was a true American hero, and demonstrated that quite strength and competence that we should all aspire to. But as a promoter of the program…the first I remember hearing him speak out was after Obama started cutting the Orion program, decades later.



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