WASHINGTON Once in a blue moon, the first man to walk on it makes a public appearance. The American engineering community prevailed on one of its leading lights, the iconic Neil Armstrong, to appear earlier this week to introduce the "greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century."
Armstrong, 69, is not so much a recluse as a deeply private man who remains far more interested in solving engineering problems than in promoting himself or turning a buck (his mission crewmate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin can currently be seen promoting online stock trading in a TV commercial). The Apollo 11 commander ticked off the National Academy of Engineering's top 20 list, told a few self-effacing jokes, answered the usual questions about what it's like to walk on the moon, and fled the limelight so fast he nearly forgot his gift National Press Club coffee mug.
While some corners of the engineering profession are busy these days trying to shed its stereotype geek image, the unapologetic Armstrong knows who he is and seems proud of it. "I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow," Armstrong told a packed crowd here this week.
In downplaying the importance of the individual and stressing the need for disciplined thought and collective action, Armstrong reinforced the overwhelming impression that he is a decent fellow and dedicated engineer who was thrust into the limelight by chance. Largely by virtue of a somewhat arbitrary Apollo mission schedule in the late 1960s and the fact that the lunar excursion module door opened so that the commander went down the ladder first, Armstrong became the most famous flier since his fellow Ohioans, Orville and Wilbur Wright. He also became our generation's Lindbergh, challenging the unknown, risking all in the name of progress.
Armstrong is the first to acknowledge the large role fate played in his selection to command the first moon landing, insisting he was just one lucky engineer behind a long line of engineers. But at the time of the Apollo program, he was also one of the top test pilots in the world and the first astronaut to dock his spacecraft, Gemini 8, with another vehicle in space Armstrong said later it was about like backing your car into a garage.
When Apollo 11 commander Armstrong realized in July 1969 that on-board computers were taking his moon lander into a boulder field, he took over manual control of the craft and landed it with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining. "Tranquility Base here," he said. "The Eagle has landed."
After a NASA desk job here and a teaching stint as professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, a straight shot down I-75 from his boyhood home of Wapakoneta, Armstrong withdrew to the Virginia Piedmont in the early 1980s to run Computing Technologies for Aviation Inc. in Charlottesville. He now serves as chairman of AIL Technologies Inc., an aerospace electronics manufacturer in Deer Park, N.Y.
When last seen here, Armstrong reluctantly co-chaired the presidential commission investigating the 1986 Challenger accident. He didn't want to do it, the reports said, but the astronaut was pressed by NASA and the Reagan administration to lend his credibility to the probe. He also turned up in Washington last year to observe the 30th anniversary of the first lunar landing. The vice president gave him another medal; Armstrong went back to work.
Space flight ranked 12th on the National Academy's top 20 list (electronics came in fifth). "Space flight was certainly one of and perhaps the greatest engineering achievement, but it was selected No. 12 on the basis of its affect on the quality of life," Armstrong said in his speech. "I do not disagree."
Then came question time. Armstrong's answers were direct, often funny, and unlike most inhabitants of the capital he said he didn't know when he didn't.
What would be one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 21st century, he was asked? Missing not a beat, he replied, "Getting rid of the credit card."
Squirming when someone asked about the ethics of bioengineering, he paused and finally said, "Has anybody got any easy questions? Those kinds of things are outside my field."
Finally, a youngster asked what all the adults wanted to know: "Do you have dreams about being on the moon?"
Armstrong probably knew it was coming, but for a moment the engineer became a boy again. "I can honestly say and it's a great surprise to me that I have never had a dream about being on the moon. It's a great disappointment to me, even more than to you."