In 1969, everyone at NASA understood the significance of commanding the first manned excursion on the Moon’s surface—that astronaut would become a permanent fixture in human history.
Mission rotations from Gemini through Apollo were fixed, with no preference given to personalities (mostly), but Neil Armstrong’s command of Apollo 11 was no accident; most NASA administrators and astronauts agreed he was the best man for the job. His demeanor was serious, almost businesslike, and personal glory never became a priority; the mission always came first. Armstrong’s ego hardly existed.
He was the first civilian NASA astronaut, a respected aeronautical engineer that helped NASA distance itself from being seen as an extension of the Air Force, but as a scientific, exploratory arm of the US government. His speaking skills and unaffected humility as a representative of the space program, shown during a three-week tour of South America, proved NASA didn’t have to worry about him speaking “out of sorts.”
Arguably the most significant factor in Armstrong’s appointment wasn’t his previous successes as an astronaut, but rather his actions during a failed, and nearly fatal mission in 1966: Gemini 8.
A Simple Mission
In March of 1966, Neil Armstrong (then famous but not yet FAMOUS) received command of Gemini 8, his first excursion into space. While the Mercury missions had mostly been about NASA tightening the nuts and bolts of the space program, Gemini mission were chiefly pre-Apollo training. Unlike the Soviets, NASA did not shotgun its approach to winning the Space Race (first woman in space, first spacewalk, first lunar rover, etc…). To them, there was only one war to win: step on the Moon and come back alive. Everything was a dry run for that, including Gemini 8.
The docking of two spacecraft would be essential for the upcoming Apollo missions, since the Command and Lunar modules would need to dock, separate, and dock again through the course of the mission. Gemini 8 was NASA’s first real attempt at this. Months earlier, the Agena Target Vehicle had been launched into space and waited silently for a manned crew to attempt docking with it. This was no easy task. Pilots didn’t “fly” in space in the traditional sense, but instead moved in a constant free fall. This required learning how to pilot in an entirely new way.
At first, the mission went perfectly. Gemini 8 achieved orbit with no mishaps, and the crew located Agena with radar easily, less than two hundred miles away. Within hours they could see the shining cylinder floating peacefully above the Earth. After confirming the undamaged condition of Agena, Armstrong slowly maneuvered Gemini 8 to Agena’s docking collar and, at a snail’s pace, maneuvered the two together. With a hefty clink that reverberated through the Gemini spacecraft, the two vehicles securely merged. NASA had just came another step closer to the Moon.
The entire operation came so easily that Armstrong’s copilot, astronaut David Scott told NASA “It’s really a smoothie.”
But things got rough in a hurry.
The preprogrammed maneuvering of the two vehicles, which was supposed to be a simple turn, suddenly turned into a steady roll, with the two vehicle twisting like twin tops in the emptiness of space. Armstrong attempted to slow the roll by countering their inertia with gentle pulses from Gemini’s maneuvering thrusters, but as soon as the roll stopped, it would start again and grew worse.
Gemini 8 was out of communication range of NASA, and as the mission commander, Armstrong was more alone than probably any man in human history. Crew safety remained his first priority, and he worried the roll of the docked spacecraft would stress the collar connecting them. Agena still carried a substantial amount of fuel, and a roll could rupture the Agena, disperse its fuel and…
Hurriedly, Armstrong and Scott ran through an abbreviated checklist and unfastened the docking collar, backing Gemini 8 away from Agena with a heavy thruster burst.They had assumed the program was on the Agena Target Vehicle, either in its hardware or in its programming, but as soon as they pulled away, Gemini 8’s roll turned into a full-on tumble in space.
At a sickening rate of almost once per second, Gemini 8 tumbled end-over-end in space, their multimillion dollar spacecraft now a horrifying amusement park ride. The glowing blue curve of the Earth would slice into the window, then disappear, slice into the window, then disappear, and the maneuvering thrusters, built and designed for this exact purpose, did nothing to stop it. Neil Armstrong and David Scott had lost control of the spacecraft.
This is where Armstrong shined.
After the mission, astronaut David Scott would say, “The guy was brilliant. He knew the system so well. He found the solution, he activated the solution, under extreme circumstances … it was my lucky day to be flying with him.”
Armstrong faced an unknown problem and had to search outside his procedural training for a quick solution. He had to do this hundreds of miles above Earth, in the deadly vacuum of space, with the entire world watching, inside a spacecraft more expensive than a thousand Cadillacs, and all while tumbling with stomach-churning speed.
Knowing the wrong button could turn a bad situation to a disaster, Armstrong reached out slowly and shut off the maneuvering thrusters, which were still spurting manically to control the tumble. Instead, he switched on the spacecraft’s retro rockets, used to slow the vehicle as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the mission.
Shutting off one system of rockets and using another might not sound impressive, but that’s because most of us are not trained NASA astronauts. The equivalent would be driving along a highway at a hundred miles an hour in a car that’s lurching violently from side-to-side on the asphalt and feeling nothing happen when you press down on the brakes. Sadly, most of us would likely continue to fruitlessly stamp on the brake pedal and succumb to numbing panic.
But a few might stay frosty and realize we have other options to slow the vehicle. We could throw it in neutral, slow the car’s speed by carefully putting the tires into the increased friction of the gritty shoulder, or steer for surface going uphill, using gravity as ersatz brakes.
This is essentially what Neil Armstrong did.
Get Creative or Get Killed
He knew Gemini 8 inside and out and knew he could fire the retro rockets to regain control of the spacecraft while leaving enough fuel for a safe return. Probably. He made a gamble, but an educated gamble and it worked. His communications with NASA had returned at this point, and were short and gruff, the sounds of an astronaut in deep, focused concentration, far from panicked. Armstrong’s uncanny self-control spooked listeners.
Within seconds, Gemini 8’s near-fatal tumble slowed and stopped. The ship was under the crew’s control again, but the mission would end. Only a fraction of fuel remained in the retro rockets, and NASA considered that significant enough to constitute an emergency reentry.
During the subsequent investigation, NASA determined an electrical short had caused one of Gemini 8’s maneuvering thrusters to continue firing despite the control of either computer or pilot. It was no fault of Armstrong or Scott’s, but rather one of the ship’s design and construction. Engineers fixed the error in subsequent spacecraft and the two astronauts were lauded for their bravery, despite the mission’s failure.
The mission’s chief result was the sudden attention Armstrong received from his fellow astronauts and NASA staff which bordered on awe. This guy was as cold as space itself, even when facing catastrophe. He not only did his job, but could come up with creative solutions for problems NASA hadn’t anticipated. On the fly.
When NASA needed someone to land on the lunar surface for the first time, maybe, just maybe, Neil Armstrong would be the right guy for the job.