You already know about Neil Armstrong’s most famous landing on July 20, 1969.
It’s his other landings you might have missed.
Before becoming an astronaut, Neil Armstrong was a naval aviator and test pilot. In 1951, he lost part of a wing in his F9F Panther during combat in Korea. Miraculously, he was able to land the plane.
In 1956, he lost three of four engines in a B-29 after one engine disintegrated and damaged the rest of the aircraft. Quick thinking by both pilots allowed the plane to land on a single engine.
In 1957, his nose gear failed while landing in an X1-B. He was forced to bring it in for a controlled crash — one he was fortunate to walk away from.
In 1962, he misjudged his altitude and damaged an F-104 while attempting to land in Nevada.
After becoming an astronaut, Armstrong was selected as the commander of the Gemini 8 space mission in 1966. It was a critical mission in the space race, since it was the first ever attempt at docking two spacecraft.
It nearly ended in disaster.
After the docking, a thruster malfunctioned, causing both crafts to spiral into an uncontrollable spin. The roll reached 296 degrees per second — a rate that would cause most humans to blackout.
The crisis was ended only by Armstrong’s quick thinking to fire the re-entry thrusters. This finally slowed the spinning and brought the capsule back to Earth for an unexpected, early landing.
Just 14 months before landing on the moon, Armstrong was nearly killed again.
NASA had commissioned the production and use of two lunar landing research vehicles. The vehicles were designed to train the mission commanders here on earth to fly and land the lunar module on the moon.
A single jet engine was mounted vertically onto a metal frame and the astronaut, strapped into the top of this frame, would hover at several hundred feet above the ground, simulating the gravity on the moon and what flight might feel like in the lunar module.
The controls malfunctioned on Armstrong during his training flight in one of these vehicles on May 6, 1968. He just barely ejected from the vehicle, which crashed in a fireball. Investigators later concluded that had Armstrong hesitated only a half a second, he would have perished.
Neil Armstrong had no less than six close calls with death before landing on the moon. It’s one of many reasons he kept his cool during the final descent on July 20, 1969 when they discovered their original landing spot was covered with boulders.
Armstrong took manual control to find a better spot. That took way longer than any simulation anticipated, which is why you’ve heard that they landed with little fuel to spare.
The part that’s often left out though, is this:
Before it almost killed him, Armstrong had landed that training vehicle on Earth with even less margin of fuel than he did on the moon. He claimed the training was so valuable that the lunar landing would not have been possible without it.
We rightfully celebrate incredible human achievements like landing on the moon.
We rarely see up close the tremendous learning, resilience, and perseverance that those achievements required.
Should you dare attempt great things, expect — and perhaps even embrace — a few rough landings along the way.
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