The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

September 8, 2012

BILL EGGERT | Space program gave us stars with right stuff

Bill Eggert
For The Tribune-Democrat

— Those of a certain age remember when our space program was in its infancy, in a tight race with the Soviet Union.

NASA, put into place by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, strove to fulfill President John Kennedy’s 1961 objective of putting a man on the moon by the end of that decade.

The ensuing Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions fired the imaginations of Americans young and old as these brave men (and later also women) sat on top of those stories-high rocket ships that hurled them into space.

They were smart, brave individuals who possessed the ‘“right stuff” to get the job done.

This past summer we lost two of these important astronauts and pioneers of the American space legacy: Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong.

Ride, a physicist from Stanford University, became the first American woman to be launched into space, as well as the youngest (at age 32) American astronaut in space.

Ride was a crew member of two flights (1983 and 1984) of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

She was preparing for a third shuttle flight in 1986 when Challenger broke apart shortly after a launch, causing the deaths of all seven crew members.

Ride was then named to a presidential commission to investigate the Challenger accident.

She left NASA in 1987 to pursue other physics and space-related projects. She was asked to serve on another board investigating the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in 2003.

Later this summer we lost Neil Armstrong, forever remembered as the first man to walk on the moon.

Armstrong had a very diverse background as a Korean War pilot for the Navy, and later as a test pilot and aerospace engineer.

During the Korean War, Armstrong flew nearly 80 missions, most during the first month of 1952, when he was only 21.

After the war, he earned his aeronautical engineering degree at Purdue and became an experimental research test pilot, making seven flights with the X-15 rocket-powered experimental aircraft. During his career, Armstrong flew more than 200 models of aircraft.

Armstrong was involved in several in-flight incidents that might have resulted in tragedy for other pilots. However, his cool, methodical mind quickly came up with solutions that averted several disasters.

No doubt his most celebrated example of this was during the 1969 moon landing, when – with only 40 seconds of fuel remaining – he took over manually handling the lunar module controls from the computer, which appeared to be malfunctioning,

On the occasion of Armstrong’s passing, his crewmates from that historic Apollo 11 moon flight, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, both said that Armstrong was the best pilot they ever knew.

It was indeed appropriate that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, given his long career in aviation.

He was a modest, humble man from a small town in Ohio who became enamored with aviation as a small child.

He made his first flight with his father as passengers on a then-new plane called the Ford Trimotor in 1936.

Armstrong earned his flying license at age 15, before he even had his driver’s license.

He was a true Boy Scout, in every sense of the word, rising to the rank of Eagle Scout, and paid tribute to his Scouting background during his flight to the moon.

Armstrong’s historic line, “…One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” perfectly reflected his sense of humility and sense of history in one brief sentence for every school kid at that moment to remember forever.

And so, on starry nights we would do well to gaze skyward and remember Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong. We should also remember all astronauts, living and deceased, and those who perished in the line of duty, who bravely explored that “Final Frontier.”

To Buzz and Alan, Deke, Gus, Wally and all those who, in the words of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s immortal poem “High Flight,” “slipped the surly bonds of Earth ... and touched the face of God.”

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown native. You can read his blog at http://thebillvilleblog.

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