The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Neil Armstrong was a very talented and very humble individual, in the view of one former NASA official. (credit: NASA)

“I guess an exercise program is in order”

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It has been correctly said that engineers are the fuel that drives the engines of our ingenuity, as well as our national economy.

Of all the millions of engineers in the world, I was very lucky to have been “in the right place at the right time” to have had an opportunity to become even a small part of the team that accomplished historic things. To me, it was the best job in the world. I have a combined sense of pride and humility in what we did.

We recognize Armstrong as one of the very best astronauts, one who came through when everything depended on him alone. They could not have chosen a better person for the job.

And, I am sure Dean Baumgartner also feels both pride and humility about his having been a part of the great JPL team that successfully put three fantastic rovers on the surface of Mars. The three are appropriately named “Spirit,” “Opportunity,” and “Curiosity.” Aren’t those three great names? Today, “Oppy” is still going after better than nine years of crawling around, still teaching us things about Mars. I learned that Dean Baumgartner had the experience of actually driving one of them. Which one was it, Eric, Oppy? Now isn’t that great?

I’d like to relate a very short story about an outstanding engineer who touched my life and helped make me what I am.

This is about a person who may be known as one of the most famous engineers of all time. I met Neil Armstrong on my first day at NASA in 1967, when I flew to Houston from Ohio in my small private plane. In the airport, I met a fellow pilot named Neil Armstrong. I learned later that he was an astronaut. We found we had a lot in common: grew up in and near Wapakoneta, Ohio, part time jobs junior high through college, boy scouts, built model airplanes, played baritone horn in high school and college bands, etc. We remained friends ever since.

Neil was a very talented and very humble individual. Neil graduated from Purdue as an engineer and always considered himself primarily an engineer and problem solver—and after that, a test pilot and astronaut. We recognize him as one of the very best astronauts, one who came through when everything depended on him alone. They could not have chosen a better person for the job.

I was privileged to work closely with Neil over the past three years before his untimely death last August. We were trying to get NASA back on the right track in human space exploration, and to restore the USA to first place in the world in space.

Neil rarely appeared in public because he felt uncomfortable in receiving all the acclaim that came his way, since he viewed himself as only a small part of a large team that accomplished the seemingly impossible.

You may be interested in my last email exchange with Neil.

First, I need to relate an inside story at NASA when he was in astronaut training back in the mid-1960’s. While all the other astronauts were seriously intense about physical fitness, Neil was the only astronaut known to avoid unnecessary exercise, for reasons known only to him.

This past August, after I heard that Neil was in the hospital for a “routine” heart bypass, I sent this email to him: “Get well quick, Neil. If you are going stir crazy, I need to send you some homework.”

His answer, typed on a laptop from his hospital bed, was: “Many thanks, Glenn. It was a big surprise! And going very well. I guess an exercise program is in order. My best, Neil”.

Shortly thereafter, we learned that he died from complications of that surgery.

We lost a good friend and a great American.