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Bill NyeAugust 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong changed the world

Neil Armstrong changed the world. He was an excellent engineer and an outstanding pilot. He got the assignment to land a completely novel rocket machine on the Earth’s Moon, because he was the perfect man for the job: He could really fly; he had excellent judgment about the capabilities of his ship; and above all, he had a remarkable ability to keep his wits about him in extraordinarily dangerous situations.

The stories are legend. He learned to land on the Moon by flying a test machine called the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (your LLRV). It looked like a metal insect or a complicated umbrella with no fabric -- and barely enough means to control it. The thing went out of control. He ejected just high enough above the ground for his parachute to open and not kill him. The story goes that he just packed up his chute and his gear, went up to his desk, and filled out the proper paperwork -- another day at the office.

Neil Armstrong parachutes after the LLRV crash
Neil Armstrong parachutes after the LLRV crash

He managed to get his Gemini capsule to join or dock with an Athena rocket booster in orbit ahead of him. When the two craft were joined, and there was a wiring failure, the whole assembly started to tumble— in zero gravity, with no ejection seat. Because of his ability to concentrate and his extensive experience and confidence. He righted his ship and got back to Earth. If it hadn’t been an expert test pilot at the helm, well, humankind’s journey to the Moon might have happened a long time later.

Flying the X-15 rocket plane, he apparently skipped off the atmosphere– a phenomenon we learned a great deal about thanks to his wild ride. He steered back and forth across California in machine that looks a bit like a big pipe with US Air Force decals on the side. He banked and pitched until he could get the machine aligned with the runway and on the ground in one piece.

With all this, he landed the Lunar Excursion Module (your LEM) on the Moon. “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Like many people my age, I was on my knees with my face as close to our General Electric black & white television as my parents would allow. He changed the world. And of course, he certainly changed me. I went on to become a professional engineer and now the CEO of this organization with a deep love of science and especially engineering, using science to solve problems and make things.

For people everywhere, Neil Armstrong was a hero I think not just because he did his dangerous job successfully, but because he was so matter-of-fact about his profession. It was a day at his office. We all owe him a debt. Just think how the word would be different, if he had crashed on the Moon, or not managed to return from the Moon, or missed the Earth on his way back. None of us would think of our place in the cosmos, our place in space differently.

Neil Armstrong raised the expectations, the hopes and dreams, of every human on Earth. Thanks to him, we all believe that humans can achieve great things -- that we can learn about our place among the stars -- that we can all reach up and out -- that we can fly, and change the world. It turns out, yours was a pretty big step after all. Thank you, sir.

Planetary Society members are invited to share their own reflections on Neil Armstrong here.

Magnificent Desolation
Magnificent Desolation
There are few photos of Neil Armstrong on the Moon because he was the one holding the camera. Here, he casts a shadow across a panoramic view of the landing site.

Read more: obituary, human spaceflight, astronaut

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Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer
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