Neil Armstrong paid tribute yesterday to the spacemen who died paving the way for his 1969 Moonwalk as President Obama prepared to honour him and his Apollo 11 crewmates in Washington today for the 40th anniversary of their historic mission.
In a rare public appearance, the first man on the Moon spoke of the spacemen who gave their lives for America’s early space programme and how their sacrifice laid the foundations for his spectacular lunar debut.
“Any time you go to a place where everything you see is different than anything you’ve ever seen before in your life, it’s unique and it’s memorable. And that certainly was,” he recalled of the moment that he gazed across the lunar landscape and planted his footprints in the dust.
He commemorated the life of Ed White, who in 1965 became the first American spacemen to walk in the vacuum of space but was one of three astronauts killed in a launchpad fire two years later during tests of the pioneering Apollo 1 spaceCraft. The others were Virgil Grissom and Roger Chaffee.
Mr Armstrong, 79, said: “Ed had an acute dedication to his work and he was committed to superiority in the conquest of space.”
Mr Armstrong’s appearance at the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Ohio was one of four public outings he is making as part of the Apollo 11 anniversary festivities. He was due to appear alongside Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, his spacemen crewmates, last night to give a joint lecture at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington ahead of today’s White House reception. The three never bonded outside their capsule as other Apollo crews did. They are, says Collins “amiable strangers”.
Mr Aldrin, also 79, who joined him at the weekend’s Hall of Fame reception, appeared to play down Armstrong’s “first man on the Moon” tag during a book-signing appearance yesterday, arguing that being second out of the door of the lunar landing module, Eagle, was just as significant.
“The climax maybe of my life was landing on the Moon with Neil. And landing is more important than walking around outside, despite what everybody wants to think,” he said. “Landing opens the door to do everything else that had never been done before.”
Apollo 11, the three spacemen: Armstrong, Collin and Aldrin
Eugene Cernan, 75, the spacemen who flew the Apollo 10 mission that orbited the Moon two months before Armstrong and Aldrin’s landing, joked that his job had been to paint a white line through space to help the pair find their way.
“Everyone knew Neil could land on the Moon, but we didn’t have a lot of confidence Neil could find it,” he quipped, prompting a smile from Mr Armstrong, who shot back: “I’ve been listening to that for 40 years and this is not the time to change my position.”
The anniversary is being marked at Nasa centres. On Thursday, Johnson Space Centre in Houston will commemorate the 40 years since the Apollo 11 trio splashed back to Earth. At Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, from where the 1969-1972 Apollo missions blasted off, an exhibition of artefacts from the era has been unveiled.
Inside the space centre’s giant Vehicle Assembly Building, engineers have been toiling on the construction of Ares 1-X, the prototype of the rocket that Nasa plans to use to launch man back to the Moon by 2020. Its $360 million (£220 million) unmanned test flight is due this October.
But military documents show that the US Air Force, which is responsible for safety at the Cape Canaveral range, believes that Ares — which partially draws on technology from the Apollo era — has design flaws that would condemn astronauts to death should the rocket explode, as their escape parachute would be melted.
The Ares programme is now under review by a panel established by President Obama, which will also determine whether Nasa is right to head back to the Moon before striking out for Mars. The new Nasa chief, Charles Bolden, is expected to examine who knew what and when about Ares’s problems as he launches into his first full week in the post.
Professor John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the National Air and Space Museum, said: “Apollo showed us that we don’t have to stay on this planet forever. It was the first step in a centuries-long process of moving humanity into the solar system.
“Hopefully we are going to continue that in the next few years. Apollo, when you look back, will be the first step in the evolution of humanity to a multi-planetary species.”