As the first person to walk on the moon, he is a man whose name will be remembered for generations to come, but perhaps one of the other well-known things about Neil Armstrong is that he hardly ever gives interviews.
It was therefore a coup for Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia (CPA Australia) chief executive Alex Malley to secure almost an hour of Armstrong’s time to discuss the astronaut’s trip to the moon.
In the illuminating conversation posted on the CPA Australia Web site, Armstrong, now 81, revealed how he thought his mission, Apollo 11, only had a 50 percent chance of landing safely on the moon’s surface and said it was “sad” that the US government’s ambitions for NASA were so reduced compared with the achievements of the 1960s.
“NASA has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve,” Armstrong said.
As a child, Armstrong said he had “become fascinated with the world of flight, as an elementary-school student, and determined that, somehow, I wanted to be involved in that.”
He served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and was working as a test pilot when then-US president John Kennedy issued his challenge to the country’s scientists to land on the moon.
At the time, the US had only managed to send Alan Shepard 160km above the surface of the Earth for 20 minutes.
“Now the president was challenging us to go to the moon,” Armstrong said. “The gap between a 20 minutes up and down flight and going to the moon was something almost beyond belief, technically.”
Over the course of the following decade, each Apollo mission was used to test different parts of the propulsion, navigation and communication technology required on a journey to the moon.
“A month before the launch of Apollo 11, we were confident we could try and attempt a descent to the surface,” Armstrong said. “I thought we had a 90 percent chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight, but only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on that first attempt.”
When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their descent aboard the Eagle to the moon’s surface, the on-board computer had intended to put them down on the side of a large crater with steep slopes littered with huge boulders.
“Not a good place to land at all,” Armstrong said. “I took it over manually and flew it like a helicopter and found a level area and was able to get it down there before we ran out of fuel. There was something like 20 seconds of fuel left.”
Once the astronauts had reached the surface and he had uttered his immortal line: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said there was too much work to do to spend too long reflecting on where he was.