Cold Open - Young Neil Armstrong flies on a plane
It’s a Sunday morning in 1936, just north of Youngstown, Ohio.
A six-year-old boy sits in the car with his dad as they cruise along an empty road on their way to Sunday School, or so the boy thinks.
The boy fusses with his necktie, glances out the window, and notices that his father isn’t taking him to church. He’s taking him to the local airport. In the distance, the boy can just make out an airplane sitting on the runway. And a big smile flashes across his face.
As the two of them get out his father grins and whispers, “Don’t tell your mother that I didn’t take you to Sunday school.”
About that time, a man greets them and leads them over to a plane. Boy’s father shakes his hand and slips him some money.
Then, the man opens the airplane door. Boy’s eyes go wide with excitement as he follows his father inside.
The man then gives the pilot a signal that the passengers are on board.
And soon, the engines start. Boy waits with anticipation as the plane rattles to life and pushes down the runway.
The boy feels his stomach drop as the plane leaves the ground and climbs into the sky. Boy notices his father looks a little nervous. But all he can do is smile. He’s just a kid, but he can’t help but feel he is right where he belongs.
Growing up, this young boy - Neil Armstrong - loves airplanes, and he’s fascinated by all aspects of the miracle of flight. As a young man, Neil works hard to become a pilot and a mechanical engineer. He also rigorously studies the history of flight and air combat.
In 1950, at the age of 20, Neil puts his flight experience to work for the US military by becoming a naval aviator. During the Korean War, Neil’s skills as a pilot, his intelligence, and unflappable nature help make a name for himself.
And soon, these same traits will grab the attention of the American space agency, NASA. As NASA develops the technology to send human beings into space, Neil will join the astronaut program, and eventually take part in one of the most iconic moments in modern history when he becomes the first person to walk on the moon on July 21st, 1969.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast — every day — we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is July 21st, 1969: “Neil Armstrong Walks On the Moon”.
Act One: Neil becomes a combat pilot and test pilot
It’s September 3rd, 1951 in the skies over Korea.
Neil Armstrong flies his F9F Panther through hilly terrain. Despite being in a highly dangerous area, Neil remains calm in the cockpit.
Neil’s been a naval aviator for a little over a year. And it hasn’t taken long for his commanding officers to recognize his talent as a pilot. In November of 1950, Neil became the youngest officer assigned to his jet squadron. And Neil’s abilities have gained him the respect of the veteran pilots he’s flying with.
But today will test those talents. From the seat of his jet, Neil spots his target. But as he descends, anti-aircraft fire hits his plane, causing Neil to drop, losing out altitude fast. Neil tries to level out his aircraft. But he’s so low that he clips a powerline pole, shearing off part of a wing.
Neil’s plane is going down over hostile territory. But still, he doesn’t panic. He keeps hold of the stick and stabilizes himself long enough to make it out of the line of enemy fire and into friendly territory. Then, Neil ejects. His parachute deploys, and he lands safely.
The Navy’s official report of the incident will state, “Neil Armstrong… saved his own life with a piece of exceptionally fast headwork.” Neil’s reputation as someone who thinks quickly and always maintains his composure continues to build over the course of 78 combat missions.
And when the Korean War is over, Neil returns to Purdue University to finish his engineering degree. As much as he enjoys flying, Neil also lights up when a technical issue comes his way. Numbers and problem-solving speak to his analytical mind, and his ability to plot out complex solutions, combined with his lightning-fast reactions in the cockpit, land him a post as a test pilot in the growing US space program.
By the late 1950s, Neil seems content with almost every aspect of his life. At work, he’s flying planes that push the limits of speed and technology. At home, he and his wife have become parents. Still, Neil has one small complaint.
As a student of aviation history, Neil believes the most important flight milestones have already been reached. When he considers the historic flights of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, he regrets being born one generation too late.
But despite his disappointment, Neil loves his work. And he loves being a father and husband. But not long after Neil and his wife welcome their second child, Karen, tragedy hits the Armstrong household.
Karen is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. And in January of 1962, she dies at just two and a half years old. A family friend will later suggest that after Karen’s tragic death, Neil demonstrated the stoicism that made him such an effective military pilot. That friend will also say that Neil threw himself into his work as a way to deal with his grief.
So as Neil tries to come to terms with the loss of his daughter, he focuses his energy on testing the latest aircraft the United States has to offer. Neil’s commitment to his job soon leads to a unique opportunity. In April of 1962, Neil has the chance to work with Chuck Yeager, the legendary pilot who first broke the sound barrier.
Neil and Chuck are sent to Smith Dry Lake in Nevada to test the area as a potential emergency landing site for NASA missions. Neil embraces the chance to partner with someone he admires. And Neil’s time working with Chuck on the project gets Neil thinking seriously about space flight.
So when Neil learns that NASA is accepting applications for a program that will send small flight crews into space, he considers becoming an astronaut. But it’s not an easy decision. He’s working on important projects already, ones that give him access to the most technologically advanced aircraft on the planet. He believes his work is helping move aviation forward. But the chance to explore an entirely new frontier is too enticing for Neil to turn down. He missed the major milestones of aviation; maybe now he can set history-making records in space.
So in June of 1962, Neil sends in his application. He’s a month past deadline, but his reputation as a gifted test pilot is well known, so NASA makes an exception. And Neil’s entrance into NASA’s astronaut program coincides with a major announcement from the White House.
In September of 1962, President John F. Kennedy will make a pledge to put a man on the moon. As Neil completes his training and makes his first space flight on the Gemini 8 mission, NASA scientists will work tirelessly to make President Kennedy’s dream come true.
Act Two: America’s mission to the moon
It’s September 12th, 1962 at Rice University in Houston, Texas; about 20 miles from NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center.
President John F. Kennedy stands before a stadium crowd of close to 35,000 people. It’s a hot day, especially for the Massachusetts-born Kennedy. Still, the president is in high spirits and he jokes about the heat and Rice’s college football rivals. But Kennedy isn’t here to entertain. He needs to drum up public support for his plan to send a man to the Moon and to surpass the Soviet Union in the so-called “Space Race.”
In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. In response, Kennedy asked Congress to allocate funds to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. But many Americans don’t care about the Space Race, they feel that spending money on a moon landing isn’t worth it. In order to loosen Congress' purse strings, Kennedy believes he will need stronger public support for space exploration.
So here in the football stadium of Rice University, President Kennedy makes his pitch for going to the Moon, he utters words that will help make this one of his most famous speeches:
"J. F. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the Moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
It is a romantic, patriotic vision – and a compelling one. Ultimately, Kennedy’s optimism will win over the American people, and their political representatives. Soon, Congress commits close to $25 billion to the space program; over $200 billion today.
Kennedy wholeheartedly believes in America’s technological capability. But in reality, NASA isn’t anywhere close to putting a man on the Moon. They need to take significant steps forward in rocket technology first.
NASA turns to Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi scientist. Wernher was instrumental in developing rockets for the Germans during World War II. In 1945, after surrendering to US troops, Wernher was brought to the US to aid the military in rocket and missile design. This eventually led him to NASA.
Despite Wernher’s connection to the Nazi party, he’s long been a public face of the American space program. In the 1950s, he even made educational films about space travel for Disney:
"WERNHER: If we were to start today, on an organized and well-supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years."
Like Kennedy, Wernher dreams of putting a man on the Moon. As a boy, he was obsessed with science fiction, and he strives to seek out undiscovered worlds like the characters from his favorite books. Throughout his career, Wernher has managed to combine his innate mathematical skills with the vision of a sci-fi author in order to achieve major milestones in flight and technology that others assumed were impossible. And he is confident his signature approach will lead the United States to the Moon.
But in November of 1963, tragedy strikes. After President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Wernher fears the worst for the Space Program; and he worries that with his death, Kennedy’s goal of going to the moon will die too.
So as the country mourns, Wernher advocates for fulfilling Kennedy’s vision. He finds support from Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ gets Congress to give more money to the space program and urges NASA to keep pushing their rocket technology forward.
Meanwhile, Wernher focuses on the design and execution of what will come to be known as the Saturn 5 Rocket. The Saturn V will be more powerful than any rocket that has been launched to date; powerful enough to put a man on the moon.
But the Saturn V is a work in progress. At times, Wernher's test rockets explode or fail to launch. But Wernher refuses to let that stop him. He believes this mission will open up the solar system for all mankind. After NASA lands someone on the Moon, they can look to Mars and beyond. And these lofty ambitions propel Wernher forward through many trials and tribulations. He uses each failed attempt as a chance to improve his designs.
Finally, as 1969 approaches, Wernher and NASA leadership believe they’re close to achieving President Kennedy’s goal. They say they will finally reach the Moon with the upcoming Apollo 11 mission. And NASA has the perfect commander in mind; someone who has demonstrated throughout his career that he has the skills and demeanor needed to lead a historic flight.
In July of 1969, Neil Armstrong will serve as commander for the three-man Apollo 11 mission. With millions watching back on earth, Neil will become the first person to walk on the Moon, uttering what will become one of the most famous phrases in modern history.
Act Three: Neil Armstrong walks on the moon
It’s 02:56 Greenwich Mean Time on July 21st, 1969 on the surface of the Moon.
Commander Neil Armstrong opens the hatch of his lunar module. Back on Earth, roughly 600 million people, about one-fifth of the world’s entire population, watches Neil on TV.
Neil once believed he’d been born too late to be the first to reach a major milestone in his field. Now, he’s about to do something that many thought could only happen in the movies.
On July 16th, Neil, and astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, boarded Apollo 11 and launched from Cape Kennedy in Florida. For days, people home followed the flight on their television sets. And on July 20th, world watched even more closely as the lunar landing module touch down on the surface of the Moon. Now, several hours later, everyone waits with bated breath as Neil steps out onto the lunar module’s ladder. He slowly descends talking through each action he takes.
"NEIL: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches. I’m going to step off the LM now."
Neil steps off the ladder and onto the surface, becoming the first person to ever set foot on the Moon. Then, Neil shares his feelings with the 600 million people watching back home.
"NEIL: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
For years, Neil will contend that he said “that’s one small step for aman,” and that the transmission simply didn’t pick up the “a”. Long after the historic step, linguists and audio archivists will continue to debate whether Neil misspoke or the word was misheard.
But either way, Neil’s words make up one of the most famous phrases spoken in modern history and popular culture. For many, Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon is a symbol of humanity’s bravery and its innate desire for exploration and discovery.
So it's no surprise that after spending over eight days in space, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins are welcomed home as heroes.
Many in the US government view Apollo 11’s journey as a significant victory over the Soviet Union in the Space Race, just as President Kennedy had hoped. The Apollo 11 mission inspires future space flights; in some, it even sparks a desire to send people to Mars, as Wernher von Braun envisioned.
But Apollo 11’s effect on the culture at large goes beyond its scientific and technological impact. It brought people together in a way that had never happened before, or since. For one moment, hundreds of millions of people from all over the world shared in an event that many considered the stuff of science fiction just years earlier. Those millions collectively held their breath, and then cheered in unison, as Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon on July 21st, 1969.
Next on History Daily. July 22nd, 1942, The Nazis begin the evacuation of the Warsaw Ghetto, transporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths at the Treblinka Extermination Camp.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.