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Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Former UC professor a 'reluctant American hero'

by Deborah Rieselman

When Neil Armstrong died at age 82 on Aug. 25, 2012, the University of Cincinnati lost its most famous faculty member, as well as its most humble. The professor of aeronautical engineering from 1971-79 was both the first man to walk on the moon and a "reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job," his family announced in a statement following his death.

Armstrong repeatedly credited those behind the scenes for the moon landing's success, as he did in a 2001 interview for NASA'S Johnson Space Center Oral History Project: "When you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that's the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off."

Faculty and students at UC remember him as someone who would never mention his past accomplishments. In return, his colleagues never brought up the subject.

"We just went to lunch with him and talked in the hallways," says Awatef Hamed, head of UC's Aerospace Systems School for the last decade and someone who was on faculty while Armstrong was teaching and conducting research at UC. "We didn't bug him and treat him like a star. He went to his office and did his work like the rest of us."

Armstrong's background

Armstrong earned an aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue University and a master's in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. From 1949-52, he was a Navy pilot who flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War. Next, he worked as a research pilot and an engineer for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as he had first done with its predecessor organization.

In 1963, he joined the astronaut program. Three years later, he became the first civilian to fly a U.S. spacecraft when he commanded Gemini 8, in which two vehicles successfully docked in space for the first time.

In '69, he was mission commander on the historic Apollo 11 flight and piloted the Lunar Module "Eagle" to the moon's surface. After making his famous "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" statement, he and Buzz Aldrin spent two hours and 36 minutes, conducting experiments, taking photographs and collecting more than 50 pounds of samples, including 50 moon rocks, on the Sea of Tranquility. Michael Collins remained in orbit, in the command module that would take them all home.

When the trio reached Earth, the collection of moon rocks and moon dust had to be declared at a U.S, customs service office in Hawaii before they could be brought into the country. (View a copy of the declaration form signed by Armstrong and crew.)

Following a 21-day quarantine to protect the Earth from potential moon microbes, the crew were welcomed home with an enormous ticker-tape parade — down Broadway and Park Avenue in New York City to City Hall and the United Nations. Next, the three astronauts addressed Congress. Then they and their wives left on President Richard Nixon's Air Force One plane for a national and international tour where they appeared in 28 cities in 25 countries in 38 days. Among the millions of admirers they met were Queen Elizabeth, Pope Paul VI and the Japanese emperor Hirohito.

The tour ended with an overnight stay at the White House. Soon after, Armstrong left again as a guest on Bob Hope's 1969 USO tour with stops in Germany, Italy, Turkey, Taiwan, Guam, Thailand and Vietnam.

Afterward, when he announced he would not fly again, Armstrong served as NASA's deputy associate administrator for aeronautics, managing the agency's overall aviation research and technology, until 1971 when he decided to teach.

Ready to teach

"I'd always said to colleagues and friends that one day I'd go back to the university," Armstrong said in the oral history interview. "I'd done a little teaching before.  There were a lot of opportunities, but the University of Cincinnati invited me to go there as a faculty member and pretty much gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted to do. I spent nearly a decade there."

UC was a good fit for Armstrong. Not only was it located 113 miles from his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, but it also had a national reputation in aerospace engineering — as the country's second oldest aeronautical engineering program (started in 1929 and later renamed aerospace engineering) and the country's first co-op program in aeronautical engineering, for whom Orville Wright had been consulted in setting up the curriculum.

Planning to further his research, Armstrong would have been interested in the university's Institute of Space Sciences, the conduit for UC's graduate studies, as well as its federally funded research in rocket propulsion, combustion and aerodynamics occurring in UC's Center of Excellence in Propulsion. Armstrong also wanted to develop his own courses, two of which focused on experimental flight mechanics and on aircraft design.

The intelligent scholar always thrived on the engineering components of air and space travel. "He was the smartest engineer I ever knew," says Luama Mays, JD '66, an international aviation attorney who became friends with Armstrong while he was teaching. "He was a pilot's pilot."

"I really enjoyed teaching," Armstrong noted in the oral history project. "I love to teach. I love the kids, only they were smarter than I was, which made it a challenge."

What he didn't love was the press continuing to hound him. Voluminous requests for interviews came through the UC Public Information Office from writers, authors, fans, collectors and corporations wanting to honor him. The variety of requests included a reporter from a Norwegian magazine, a host on the Scottish national radio network, a 78-year-old woman wanting a cast of his footprint and a fifth-grader requesting information 11 years after Armstrong had left UC.

To make matters worse, Armstrong did not like paperwork, says mechanical-engineering professor emeritus Ron Huston, who worked closely with Armstrong on campus. "I tried to shield him as much as possible from the usual flow of informational requests and forms common in academic settings," he says.

"Upon his arrival, he was given an office on the north side of Rhodes Hall. Some students would, on occasion, stand on each other’s shoulders to peer in at the celebrity through the window near the ceiling. To prevent this, we had to cover the window.

"It soon became clear that we needed to protect him from other similar incidents," Huston continues. "We assigned a secretary, Elaine Moore, in an anteroom to take requests for autographed photographs. Then each morning Neil would inscribe and sign a stack of photographs as requested."

Those were standard, formal business photos. He did not welcome photographers from the general press intruding upon his classroom. Although he did make one exception.

Gina Lollobrigida's visit

In 1974, Gina Lollobrigida showed up on campus looking for him. The star, who had appeared in films with Humphrey Bogart, Rock Hudson and Sean Connery, originally met Armstrong on the Italian section of his whirlwind tour, when the group reportedly partied with the actress until dawn.

By '74, Lollobrigida was a photojournalist for Ladies' Home Journal. Students like Ralph Spitzen, Eng '74, MBA '76, remember being in shock when the highly attractive photographer entered Armstrong's room.

Generally, the former astronaut turned down all requests for interviews and photo shoots. He specifically did not want to talk to media representatives individually.

"I believe Neil viewed himself as just an ordinary person," notes colleague Ron Huston. "He fully understood that the moon landing was the result of long, hard work of many people. Someone had to be the first to step out. It could have been any of a number of astronauts. Neil did not want to leave the impression that he did it all on his own.

In 1976, Al Kuettner, UC director of information, told Armstrong, "I have spent a good deal of my time at UC trying to insure that exploiters and nuts — in the press and elsewhere — do not harass you." By early 1979, the job was becoming so overwhelming that the Public Information Office developed a standard practice of denying requests for Armstrong photos.

Ed Bridgeman, Ed ’76, M (A&S) '83, who was the police chief then and is now associate professor and coordinator of the UC Clermont College criminal justice program, also spent time trying to protect Armstrong. "I erected buffers to shield Neil so he could get his work done," he says. “A lot of people just wanted to touch him.

"I had a system for handling his mail and for people coming to his office or his home. His name was not on his door, and his phone number was not in the directory.

"He only had one press conference (see photo at right), and that was for the 10th anniversary of the moon landing. People came from all over the world. That was one time I was glad that I was a graduate of the Secret Service School."

Although the media may have called professor Armstrong aloof, students say they were unaware of that persona. "For his students, he couldn’t have been any more approachable," Ralph Spitzen says. "He was always willing to sit down with you and answer any questions.

"He was a great aviator who was comfortable making paper airplanes in UC’s Armory Fieldhouse and a professor who enjoyed having beers with students after final exams. He showed frustration when a NASA administrator interrupted class but tolerated the antics of our class when we got restless or when a famous Italian actress converted our Baldwin Hall classroom into a photo-shoot backdrop."

Despite any hassles the police chief had to endure, Bridgeman says that Armstrong was the "easiest" faculty member he ever worked with. "He was a true gentleman and a servant of his profession," Bridgeman says. "He didn't want accolades because he only wanted to teach. He really worked hard at just being a teacher."

While engaged in UC research, Armstrong eventually served as director of the collaborative Institute of Engineering and Medicine — working with Benadryl inventor George Rieveschl, A&S '37, MS (A&S) '39, PhD (A&S) '40, HonDoc '56, UC vice president of special projects; Henry Heimlich, the man who invented the choking-rescue maneuver and was director of surgery at Cincinnati's Jewish Hospital; and Edward Patrick, Purdue University professor of electrical engineering. The team attempted to apply NASA advances to develop a miniature human heart-lung implant.

On Jan. 1, 1980, Armstrong resigned from UC. "I stayed in that job longer than any job I'd ever had up to that point, but I decided it was time for me to go on and try some other things," he later said.

In 1982, he came back as UC's commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree.

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan named him to a commission to devise a space agenda for the 21st century, and the next year, he was named vice chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.

Following his academic career, Armstrong entered the business world, serving for 10 years as chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation and later as chairman of AIL Systems, a New York electronic systems company.

Honors earned

A fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Armstrong was decorated by 17 countries. Internationally, he received the Royal Geographic Society's Gold Medal, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale's Gold Space Medal and the Harmon International Aviation Trophy. In the U.S., he received the first Congressional Space Medal of Honor, presented by President Jimmy Carter; the Congressional Gold Medal, presented by President Barack Obama as the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

When the American hero died, President Obama said via Twitter, "Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time. Thank you, Neil, for showing us the power of one small step."

"As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind's first small step on a world beyond our own," added NASA administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden. "As we enter this next era of space exploration, we do so standing on the shoulders of Neil Armstrong. We mourn the passing of a friend, fellow astronaut and true American hero."

Armstrong was living in the Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill when he died of "complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures." He is survived by his wife, two sons, a stepson, a stepdaughter, 10 grandchildren, a brother and a sister.

"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request," the family asked in its statement. "Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

 


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