Lancaster High alumnus Charles Duke Jr. remembered fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong on Saturday as a great pilot and a humble man.
Armstrong, the astronaut who marked an epochal achievement in exploration with one small step from the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969, becoming the first person to walk on the moon, died Saturday at 82.
His family announced the death in a statement but did not disclose where he died. They attributed it to complications resulting from cardiovascular procedure.
It was Duke who, as capsule communicator for Apollo 11, talked with Armstrong as the lunar module Eagle descended to the moons Sea of Tranquility. After Armstrong reported the Eagle has landed, Dukes reaction became iconic.
Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. Youve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. Were breathing again. Thanks a lot.
Duke, contacted by The Herald at his Texas home, said he remembers the exchange as if it was yesterday. He and Armstrong remained close friends after the historic moon landing.
He was a great mentor as I worked on Apollo 11, Duke said. That helped me. It had a positive effect to get me a seat to go to the moon.
Duke was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 16 in 1972, becoming the 10th man to walk on the moon. He spent 71 hours on the moons surface.
Duke, 76, said he last saw Armstrong in April at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
And I was certainly praying for him when he had his open heart surgery this month, Duke said.
He was one of the closest friends I had in the astronaut program.
Duke was born in Charlotte and raised in Lancaster. He attended Lancaster High School and graduated from Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Armstrong, a taciturn engineer and test pilot, was among the most heroized Americans of the 1960s Cold War space race. He was never at ease with his fame.
Nobility of character
Twelve years after the Soviet Sputnik satellite reached space first, deeply alarming U.S. officials, and after President John F. Kennedy in 1961 declared it a national priority to land an American on the moon before this decade is out, Armstrong, a former Navy fighter pilot, commanded the NASA crew that finished the job.
His trip to the moon particularly the hair-raising final descent from lunar orbit to the treacherous surface was historys boldest feat of aviation. Yet what the experience meant to him, what he thought of it all on an emotional level, he mostly kept to himself.
Armstrong was exceedingly circumspect from a young age, and the glare of international attention just deepened a personality trait that he already had in spades, said his authorized biographer, James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian who wrote .
I think Neil knew that this glorious thing he helped achieve for the country back in the summer of 1969 glorious for the entire planet, really would inexorably be diminished by the blatant commercialism of the modern world, Hansen said.
And I think its a nobility of his character that he just would not take part in that.
The perilous 195-hour journey that defined Armstrongs place in history from the liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, to the capsules splashdown in the Pacific eight days later riveted the worlds attention, transcending cultural, political and generational divides in an era of profound social tumult and change in the United States.
As Armstrong, a civilian, and his crewmates, Air Force pilots Edwin E. Buzz Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, hurtled through space, television viewers around the globe witnessed the drama. About a half-billion people listened to the climactic landing and watched a flickering video feed of the moon walk.
At center stage, cool and focused, was a pragmatic, 38-year-old astronaut who would let social critics and spiritual wise men dither over the larger meaning of his voyage.
When Armstrong occasionally spoke publicly about the mission in later decades, he usually did so dryly, his recollections mainly operational.
I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, he said at a gathering honoring the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century.
Unlike Aldrin and Collins, Armstrong never published a memoir.
Landing the LM
After flying experimental rocket planes in the 1950s at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Armstrong was selected for NASAs astronaut corps in 1962 and became the first U.S. civilian to be blasted into space.
In 1966, during his only space flight other than Apollo 11, a life-threatening malfunction of his Gemini 8 vehicle caused the craft to tumble out of control in Earth orbit. It was the nations first potentially fatal crisis in space, prompting Armstrong and his crewmate, David Scott, to abort their mission and carry out NASAs first emergency re-entry.
His skill and composure were put to no greater test, though, than in the anxious minutes starting at 4:05 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, July 20, 1969, when the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin, having separated from the Apollo 11 capsule, began its hazardous, 9-mile final descent to the moons Sea of Tranquility.
The lunar module, or LM (pronounced lem), was dubbed Eagle. Its 1969 computer, overtaxed during the descent and flashing alarm lights as it fell behind on its work, guided the spider-like craft most of the way to the surface.
In the last few thousand feet Armstrong, looking out a window, saw that the computer had piloted Eagle beyond its targeted landing spot. The craft was headed for a massive crater surrounded by boulders as big as cars.
Armstrong, as planned, took manual control of the LM at 500 feet. Standing in the cramped cockpit, piloting with a control stick and toggle switch, he maneuvered past the crater while scanning the rugged moonscape for a place to safely put down.
Although the world remembers Armstrong best for walking on the moon, Armstrong recalled that time on the surface as anticlimactic, something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable. Flying the LM was by far the most difficult and challenging part of the mission, he told a group of youngsters in a 2007 email exchange.
The very high-risk descent was extremely complex, he wrote, and guiding the craft gave him a feeling of elation.
Pilots take no particular joy in walking, he once remarked. Pilots like flying.
As he and Aldrin kept descending, balanced on a cone of fire 240,000 miles from Earth, the LMs roaring engine kicked up a fog of moon dust, distorting Armstrongs depth perception and clouding his view of the surface.
Meanwhile, the descent engines fuel separate from the fuel that would later power the ascent engine on their departure from the moon dwindled to a critical level.
Quantity light, Aldrin warned at just under 100 feet.
This meant that Armstrong, according to NASAs instruments, had less than two minutes to ease the LM to the surface or he would have faced a frightful dilemma.
He would have had to abort the descent, ending the mission in failure at a cost of immense national prestige and treasure; or he would have had to risk a sort of crash landing after the fuel ran out letting the LM fall in lunar gravity the rest of the way down, hoping the slow-motion plunge wouldnt badly damage it.
With 50 seconds to spare, the world heard Aldrin say, Contact light, and Eagles landing gear settled on the lunar soil. Their precarious, 12-minute decent into the unknown left Armstrongs pulse pounding at twice the normal rate.
Humanity listened, transfixed.
Houston, Tranquility base here, Armstrong reported. The Eagle has landed.
Armstrongs simple report yielded Dukes famous reponse.
Hours later, Armstrong, soon followed by Aldrin, climbed down the ladder outside the LMs hatch as a television camera mounted on the craft transmitted his shadowy, black-and-white image to hundreds of millions of viewers.
How Armstrong wound up commanding the historic flight had to do with his abilities and experience, plus a measure of good fortune.
Months earlier, when he had been named Apollo 11 commander, NASA envisioned his mission as the first lunar landing yet no one could be sure. Three other Apollo flights had to finish preparing the way. If any of them had failed, Apollo 11 would have had to pick up the slack, leaving the momentous first landing to a later crew.
Why the space agency chose Armstrong, not Aldrin, for the famous first step out of the LM had to do with the two mens personalities.
Publicly, NASA said the first-step decision was a technical one dictated by where the astronauts would be positioned in the LMs small cockpit. But in his 2001 autobiography, Christopher C. Kraft Jr., a top NASA flight official, confirmed the true reason. Aldrin, who would struggle with alcoholism and depression after his astronautic career, was overtly opinionated and ambitious, making it clear within NASA why he thought he should be first.
The stoic Armstrong, on the other hand, quietly held to his belief that the descent and landing, not the moon walk, would be the missions signature achievement.
Neil Armstrong, reticent, soft-spoken and heroic, was our only choice, Kraft said.
Small step for (a) man
As for his famous statement upon stepping off the ladder, Armstrong said he didnt dwell on it much beforehand, that the idea came to him only after the landing.
He would always maintain that he had planned to say a man. Whether the a was lost in transmission or Mr. Armstrong misspoke has never been fully resolved. As his boots touched the lunar surface at 10:56:15 p.m. Eastern time, the world heard: Thats one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Ever the precise engineer, Mr. Armstrong later said that if it were up to him, history would record his immortal words with an a inserted in parenthesis.