William Hines, Eng ‘59, M (A&S) ‘64, is an aerospace engineering alumnus who sent us a copy of this letter, which he received from his school friend John Herrnstein. They were both 1953-54 basketball and baseball teammates at Chillicothe High School. Herrnstein went to play football and baseball at the University of Michigan, and Hines came to UC and played baseball.
John Herrnstein’s letter follows:
My father held dual degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering, and my brother was a metallurgical engineer, both graduating from the University of Michigan, as I also did. They both worked for NASA at Langley Field, Va., during the ‘60s, so I naturally had a very keen interest in our budding space program. I happened to be a professional baseball player with the Philadelphia Phillies at that same time.
When the Houston Astrodome officially opened for National League play in April 1965, we were the Astro’s opponent in the inaugural game. Before the game, the 29 Mercury program astronauts were all honorees, preceded by an introduction of the original seven that had been chosen.
Naturally, I was transfixed. I remember being the only person in our dugout, as the rest of my team had not bothered to come out of the clubhouse.
As I was waiting for the ceremonies to begin, a wiry-built civilian came down into the dugout, approached me, sat down and we began talking. He explained that he was an astronaut in training, part of the second wave of newer astronauts, and was from a small town in Ohio, just as I also was. We exchanged pleasantries for 10 or 15 minutes before he decided he’d better rejoin the activities on the field.
Upon departing, he shook my hand and said, “By the way, my name is Neil Armstrong. What is yours?” I remember thinking to myself at the time, none of these astronauts are very big men, restricted in stature by capsule space and payload limitations, but huge in outright courage.
After our road trip ended, I told my wife, Barbara, about meeting one of the newer astronauts, how impressed I was over his humility and modesty and that he told me his name was Neil Armstrong. I asked her to help me remember his name — that I wanted to follow his career and any flights he might take! The rest is history!
Then in April 2010, I decided to write him a letter explaining that I totally forgot to tell him about both my dad and my brother working for NASA at Langley, and about my dad’s close friendship with many of the test pilots back then. I even vainly asked if he remembered anything about the event of our chance meeting before the game.
I also included several items of “proof,” in order to show that I was not misrepresenting myself in any way. Knowing his rather reclusive nature and understandable penchant for privacy, I never really expected a reply.
About two months later and much to my great surprise, I received a wonderful return letter in the mail. He thanked me for my letter and apologized for not responding sooner but explained he had been quite busy lobbying Congress for a larger NASA budget and the continuation of our manned space program.
Although now 80, he was still fighting for America to lead in space exploration. He remembered that the Phillies won the game that night but not much else about the evening, aside from how impressed he was with the Astrodome.
He also named some of the test pilots my dad probably knew and said who he had worked with at Langley, as well. Indeed, one was a very close personal friend of our family who was in our home on many occasions before we moved to Ohio.
Aside from being profoundly honored that he took the time to write me, it was also quite obvious to me that he had even researched me to some extent. He made mention of the fact that my family had an interesting history in University of Michigan athletics, which could only have come from the Internet.
He was obviously thorough and meticulously prepared in everything he did, even in responding to a letter over a chance meeting 45 years previous. Little wonder he was such an accomplished pilot, astronaut and explorer
Our meeting is my most cherished moment from professional baseball. It was not my first hit or my first homerun or any statistic about baseball. It was, however, getting to meet and having that isolated conversation with Neil Armstrong, before he ever made it into space or walked on the moon.
Looking at both the past and the future, I don’t regard Christopher Columbus as having anything on Neil Armstrong. Few, if any, have made a greater contribution to our country, or to the world community, than he did. What a remarkable legacy he leaves us.