Share on

21 July 1969: the man who walked on the Moon

What happened this week in the History of Industry? It is to answer this question that Global Industrie invites you to rediscover, every week, a key event which occurred around this time… in another age. Hergé had imagined it twenty years earlier, and Neil Armstrong did it on the 21st of July 1969: a man walked for the first time on the Moon! Although the story of this event is famous, we are less familiar with its very quiet main protagonist. For good reason… We look back on the career of an exceptional hero who is.... very discrete!



Neil Alden Armstrong was born on the 5th of August 1930 into a modest Ohio family. His mother was a housewife and his father an Ohio state auditor, which meant that he had often had to move house with his wife and three children. Neil’s passion for aviation developed very early after flying in plane for the first time at the age of six. His fascination was such that he spent his childhood devouring specialist magazines and assembling model aircraft. He thus obtained his pilot’s license on his sixteenth birthday… even before he was able to drive a car!

This young enthusiast was nevertheless a quiet and thoughtful man who was constantly introspective. His extreme sensitivity and modesty were to remain with him throughout his life and led him to develop a passion for music… and even to write two musicals at Purdue University in Indiana. It was there that he obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering and met his first wife with whom he was to have three children. He took a temporary break in these studies in 1950 to do his military service in the navy, where he took… a jet pilot training course. Based on the aircraft carrier USS Essex, he thus took part in the Korean War before joining what was later to become NASA as a test pilot in 1955. He made more than 900 flights there to help develop experimental bombers, fighters and rocket aircraft. This impressive record led to him joining the American space agency’s prestigious astronaut corps in 1962, at the age of only 32. 



In 1966 he thus made his first space flight on board Gemini 8, during which he conducted the first docking of two spacecraft. It was therefore only natural that this seasoned pilot should be chosen as commander of Apollo 11, the first mission destined to land on the Moon…

Far from having his head in the clouds, he was a man who took precautions. Before departing for this high-risk mission, together with his two fellow astronauts, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, he signed a very unusual life insurance policy: postcards which they then gave to their families so that they could sell them in the event of their premature death… and which now fetch a fortune!

Thus it was that on the 21st of July 1969, at 38, he landed on the Moon and, in front of millions of fascinated human beings glued to their TV sets, went out with Aldrin at 8:20 p.m. to take Man’s first steps on a body other than Earth, pronouncing the now legendary words: "that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind". The two astronauts planted a commemorative plaque and an American flag, installed a particle sensor and took samples and photographs. As regards the reason why he was chosen as the first to set foot on the Moon, it was apparently the fact that he was incorporated as a civilian in NASA, unlike Buzz Aldrin, who had remained a soldier. The American space agency was keen that this event should not be associated with a military conquest. Technical reasons were also advanced, linked to the positioning of the doors in the capsule which apparently favored Armstrong.



It was therefore a man covered in glory who came back to Earth on the 24th of July. Although his first wife – from whom he was divorced in 1994, which perhaps explains the comment which follows – claimed that "the Moon went to his head", everything seems to indicate the contrary. Rather than capitalizing on his sudden fame, he announced his retirement from space flights and went to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He constantly repeated to the very rare journalists to whom he granted an interview that he "didn’t deserve all this attention" and, unlike many of his colleagues, always ruled out writing his memoirs. Avoiding the spotlight, he often refused even to give autographs because of the trafficking it led to, and fiercely opposed unauthorized uses of his name, his image or his words… or even his hair! In May 2005, he thus threatened to sue his hairdresser, despite being his customer for twenty years. The hairdresser, who had sold his hair to a collector for 3,000 dollars, was forced to donate this sum to charity.

Although he preferred to spend most of his time on his farm, his prestige nevertheless enabled him to serve, in the decades which followed, as a spokesman for several American companies and to be one of the members of the commissions of inquiry set up after the aborting of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
When he died at 82 on the 25th of August 2012, following a heart operation, President Barack Obama in person declared: "Neil is one of the greatest American heroes — not only of his time but of all time". American flags were flown at half-mast and his ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.

He will forever remain the first of only a dozen men – all Americans – who have walked on the Moon… even if it was twenty years after Tintin!

"Just think, we’re treading on the soil of the Moon where Man’s hand has never set foot!" – Hergé

Other events which happened this week:

-    20 July (1937): death of the Italian father of radio and wireless telegraphy, Guglielmo Marconi
-    21 July (2011): last landing of an American space shuttle, Atlantis
-    23 July (1894): the world’s first motor race, between Paris and Rouen
-    23 July (1903): Ford sells his first automobile
-    25 July (1909): the French aviator Louis Blériot is the first man to fly across a sea, the English Channel
-    25 July (1964): the ORTF broadcasts its first programs in Franc