Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, became interested in flying when he was a 2-year-old boy growing up in Ohio. His father, Stephen, took Neil to watch the National Air Races in Cleveland.
Neil was six when he and his father, an auditor for the state, took a ride in an airplane over Warren, Ohio. It was a Ford Tri-Motor plane nicknamed the Tin Goose.
A little more than 30 years earlier, on Dec. 17, 1903, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio – Orville and Wilbur Wright – had become the first men to pilot a motorized plane. Orville flew first, guiding the 12-horsepower Wright Flyer over 120 feet in 12 seconds – about 10 feet off the ground. Wilbur made the longest flight, traveling 852 feet in 59 seconds. Average speed was 31 miles an hour. The next morning, the first account of the flights was published in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
“As a boy, because I was born and raised in Ohio, about 60 miles north of Dayton, the legends of the Wrights have been in my memories as long as I can remember,” Neil Armstrong said in 2003, the 100th anniversary of when the Wrights pioneered motorized flight.
But on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong made even bigger headlines in Cincinnati – and around the world – by stepping on the moon. He was the civilian commander of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, which had blasted out of the Earth’s orbit at 24,200 miles an hour and traveled about 238,000 miles.
Neil Armstrong, then 38-years-old, recognized the extraordinary feat he had accomplished. After stepping onto the moon’s surface at 10:56 p.m., he said: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I remember seeing and hearing it all on television. It was an achievement that took my breath away.
I had the pleasure of meeting Neil Armstrong at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington several years ago, during an event held in his honor. I was invited because I represent Ohio’s Second Congressional District, which includes his home in the Hamilton County city of Indian Hill. He was a true gentleman.
I was saddened to learn that Neil Armstrong died Aug. 25 at age 82. His passing made headlines around the world. His accomplishments will, no doubt, be recounted for centuries – just as they have been in newspapers and on the internet and on the airwaves over the last few days.
President Richard Nixon may have put it best when he spoke by telephone from Washington to Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin while they were on the moon.
“Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world,” the president told them. “And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”
To me, the most impressive thing is not that Neil Armstrong reached such great heights despite a humble beginning in Ohio, but that he stayed humble. Viola Louise Engel Armstrong gave birth to Neil Alden Armstrong on Aug. 5, 1930, on the farm of his maternal grandmother. It was near the city of Wapakoneta, the seat of Auglaize County.
At 15 years of age, Neil began taking flying lessons in New Knoxville. He earned a pilot’s license before graduating in 1947 from Blume High School in Wapakoneta.
Thanks to a scholarship from the Navy, he studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University. He flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War, piloting a Grumman F9F-2 Panther jet off the aircraft carrier USS Essex. Later, as a test pilot, he flew more than 200 kinds of aircraft – ranging from helicopters to the X-15 rocket plane, which traveled at 4,000 miles per hour. He earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.
In 1955, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as an engineer and pilot. His first assignment was at the Lewis Research Center near Cleveland. He became an astronaut in 1962, gaining fame for piloting Gemini 8, which launched on March 16, 1966. Two years after landing on the moon, Armstrong left NASA. From 1971 to 1979, he was a professor at the University of Cincinnati, where he taught aerospace engineering.
After serving as chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc. 1982-92, Neil Armstrong led a quiet life in Indian Hill, avoiding publicity and shunning the label of hero. It followed him around anyway. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, to name a few.
He was one of our nation’s greatest living heroes. He will remain one of the greatest heroes in history.
Ohio now is the birthplace or home of 24 other astronauts, including John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth.
It is because of the courage and can-do spirit of such Ohioans that the United States leads the world in the exploration of space. Right now, an unmanned American spacecraft is roving the surface of Mars.
Is it too far off to imagine the day when some American, perhaps a boy or girl now growing up in Ohio, will be the first person to set foot on the Red Planet?
If you have a young child or grandchild, I hope you will tell him or her about Neil Armstrong.
Mention how Neil Armstrong was born and raised in Ohio and still called it home 82 years later. Discuss how education and hard work can prove rewarding. Be sure to note that teamwork is vital to success, and that humility is a virtue.
And then tell your child to reach for the stars.
Jean Schmidt is the U.S. Congresswoman serving Ohio’s Second District.