NARRATOR: As Apollo 11 embarked on mankind's bold adventure to land on the Moon... ...the world's hopes and dreams hung on the actions of its three-man crew, especially commander Neil Armstrong.
With the skills that had made him one of America's finest aviators, Armstrong marked his place in history with these famous words.
NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for Man, one giant leap for mankind.
NARRATOR: But what was it that had brought him to this historic moment?
Armstrong had climbed to the pinnacle of his profession...
Tested in combat in the skies over Korea...
Reaching to the limit of the atmosphere as an elite test pilot, and on into space, where his cool head saved lives.
And finally, accepting a life-long mantle of fame that didn't always sit well with him.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: We ask a lot of our heroes.
We put a burden on them.
We put a burden on Neil Armstrong that he didn't enjoy.
NARRATOR: So who was Neil Armstrong?
His story now told by those who lived, loved and worked with the "First Man on the Moon," up next on NOVA.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the following: It's one of the most amazing things we build, to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
NARRATOR: When President John F. Kennedy articulated this bold vision in 1961, he pinned American technological supremacy and national pride on winning a race to the Moon.
The stakes were huge.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: It staggers the imagination, frankly, and there were plenty of people even within NASA who thought that Kennedy had lost his sanity.
NARRATOR: Incredibly, just eight years later, three men were poised to achieve the President's goal.
In command was Neil Armstrong.
ARMSTRONG: We the crew of Apollo 11 are privileged to represent the United States in our first attempt to take man to another heavenly body.
NARRATOR: At 38 years old, Armstrong was at the pinnacle of an impressive flying career.
An innate steadiness along with exceptional aviation skills had seen him through the Korean War, allowed him to master the most unforgiving aircraft as a test pilot, and brought a crippled spacecraft safely back to Earth.
Now his ability as a pilot would be put to the ultimate test: attempting a landing on the Moon.
NARRATOR: As the world held its breath, and with only seconds of fuel remaining, Neil Armstrong guided his fragile craft towards the surface of an alien world.
He was about to complete a journey that for him had begun more than 30 years before, when he had first taken flight as a young boy.
Born here in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930, Neil Armstrong's love affair with flying began early, as his childhood friend recalls.
KOTCHO SOLACOFF: When he was like five years old, his father took him on an airplane ride, on a Trimotor.
Dad got sick, but Neil just absolutely loved it.
NARRATOR: The mid-1930s was a golden age of flight in America, and like many other young children, Neil's first taste of being airborne left a lasting impression.
DEAN ARMSTRONG: This was the start, and the feeling of being airborne, and actually flying like a bird.
It kindled his inspiration to fly.
He absolutely loved everything about flight.
He would have three or four model airplane projects going on all the time: mostly gliders, then he got into the rubber band type, and he just kept building bigger and bigger ones and better ones.
We both made models early, and of course our desire then, as it was later in our careers, was to make these things go higher and faster.
And my solution to higher and faster was you took a couple of extra turns on the rubber band.
Neil's solution: he built a wind tunnel!
DEAN ARMSTRONG: When we were ready for the test, he said, "Go get Mom."
I said, "Neil wants you to see something," and he turned it on.
And all of a sudden the house shook, and I mean the house really shook.
(fan blowing loudly) COLLINS: How many kids could build a wind tunnel in their basement?
Not any that I know, except Neil.
(bombs exploding) NARRATOR: Neil's infatuation with flying was fueled as America entered the Second World War in December 1941.
He devoured the daring exploits of Allied pilots portrayed in popular wartime magazines.
ey inspired him, and at just 15 years old, he learned to fly.
DEAN ARMSTRONG: He had his pilot's license before he had his driver's license.
NARRATOR: During the war, developments in aviation were moving fast.
After 1945, propeller planes were starting to be replaced by aircraft powered by jet and rocket engines.
Then came an event that shook the aviation world.
Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound in his Bell X-1 Rocket plane in 1947 coincided with an ominous turn in East-West relations.
And the implications for Armstrong would prove profound.
Eager to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering, Armstrong won a Navy scholarship to study the subject and enrolled at Purdue University.
But his studies were soon interrupted as the Cold War began to heat up.
SOLACOFF: At the end of his second year, which would have been 1950, the Korean War started.
NARRATOR: Backed by Communist China, North Korea invaded South Korea.
When America responded by scrambling its armed forces, Armstrong found himself at war.
He was 20 years old.
He joined Naval Fighter Squadron VF-51 on the aircraft carrier USS Essex.
There was a lot to learn, and fast, as he recalls in this audio interview.
ARMSTRONG: We had to come carrier-qualified in the jet aircraft.
Doing a lot of practice with weapons delivery, instrument flying and so on.
I was very young, very green.
NARRATOR: But Armstrong quickly mastered carrier flying, one of aviation's most challenging jobs, and was soon showing his skill in combat.
SOLACOFF: One of his jobs was to dive-bomb and blow up bridges and railroads.
And he said that the North Koreans strung up wires.
NARRATOR: For low-flying pilots, anti-aircraft cables we an ever-present danger.
They were hard to spot, even for the sharp-eyed Armstrong.
(explosions) ARMSTRONG: I actually ran through a cable, an anti-aircraft cable, and knocked off about six or eight feet of my right wing.
NARRATOR: Battling to keep control, Armstrong needed to think fast and react quickly.
SOLACOFF: As long as he could keep a certain speed, he could stay up, but as soon as he slowed down, the plane would drop, so he knew that he could not land on the aircraft carrier.
He'd have to bail out.
NARRATOR: This close shave revealed Armstrong's uncanny ability to always remain calm under pressure.
DEAN ARMSTRONG: He never showed any fear or anything involving his close calls.
He really loved what he was doing.
It was a very meaningful time for him.
NARRATOR: The Korean War sharpened the skills of many young pilots, including Armstrong.
He'd flown 78 missions by the age of 22.
He returned to Purdue in 1952, where he received his degree and found a wife.
JANET ARMSTRONG: Oh, I met him at Purdue.
He told someone that I was the one he was going to marry, but he never asked me out until he had graduated.
We were married in January 1956.
And after that, in May, we went up to the desert.
NARRATOR: Here at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Armstrong would become a test pilot.
Edwards was the mecca for America's elite aviators.
But the work wasn't for the faint-hearted.
It required a cool head, quick thinking and the ability to understand how an untested machine would react in an untried environment.
Honing these skills would make test pilots top contenders for future space missions, and Armstrong was no exception.
ARMSTRONG: We were out at the edges of the flight envelope all the time, testing limits.
If memory serves, there were 17 aircraft, pretty much all different.
A lot of X airplanes and fighters, a B-47, a couple of B-29s, all kinds of exotic aircraft.
Then as they became more confident in my abilities, they gave me more and more jobs, and I did a lot of different test programs in those days.
CHAIKIN: The kinds of flying that he did at Edwards really put him in the elite top of the test-flying fraternity.
NARRATOR: But one machine at Edwards pushed Armstrong higher and faster than any other... the X-15.
ARMSTRONG: Heading uphill at 33,000 feet...
The X-15 was literally crossing the boundary from aviation into space flight, and it was an incredibly demanding vehicle to fly.
NARRATOR: Half-plane, half-spacecraft, the rocket-powered X-15 was the cutting edge of aviation technology.
It flew at hypersonic speeds, more than six times faster than sound, soaring over 50 miles in altitude.
It still holds the record of the fastest plane ever flown.
COLLINS: The X-15 was absolutely the top of the line.
It was a whole supersonic zone above the rest of us, and therefore, all the people who flew the X-15 were held in the highest regard by the rest of us peasants.
Neil of course was one of that group.
ARMSTRONG: That was a very exciting program.
I think it was certainly one of the memorable parts of my life.
NARRATOR: One flight almost got the better of him.
ARMSTRONG: I got the nose up above the horizon, and I found I was actually, you know, skipping outside the atmosphere.
I had no aerodynamic controls.
NARRATOR: Soaring out of the atmosphere at almost a mile a second, Armstrong was unable to keep control.
ARMSTRONG: What I couldn't do is get back down in the atmosphere.
I pulled over and pulled down, but it wasn't going down because there was no air to bite into.
So I just had to wait until I got back in with enough air to have aerodynamic control and some lift on the wings and immediately started making a turn back.
CHAIKIN: He's the essence of the engineering test pilot, and what that carries with it is an intensity, a focus like you can't imagine.
NARRATOR: The X-15 further challenged and sharpened Armstrong's flying ability.
But his young family also faced challenges at Edwards.
It was totally different, foreign to anything I'd ever known in my life.
That's where we lived when Rick was born, and then shortly thereafter, Karen.
NARRATOR: In 1961, aged two, Karen fell seriously ill. Karen was a precious thing, and she developed a tumor in her brain.
And, um... We could not save her.
DEAN ARMSTRONG: The death of Karen really hurt him.
It was the only time that I'd ever seen him really, really hurt.
Couldn't talk about it.
NARRATOR: Despite his loss, to all outward appearances, Armstrong remained focused on his duties as a test pilot.
But beyond the skies at Edwards, the Space Race was on...
Opening up an entirely new set of opportunities.
Liftoff, and the clock has started!
NARRATOR: America's manned space program began with Project Mercury in 1961: six short flights, each carrying a single astronaut.
But to meet President Kennedy's challenge of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, NASA would require more astronauts.
CHAIKIN: When NASA was looking, you know, Neil Armstrong was at the top of their list because he'd had all of that flight test experience at Edwards, and that just made him incredibly attractive to the Astronaut Selection Group.
Curiously, the Milwaukee Journal gave me a call.
And they said, "I understand your brother is one of the newest astronauts."
I think I was speechless.
NARRATOR: Along with Janet, Rick and a new son, Mark, Neil began a new life in Houston, the home of America's manned space program.
It was a nice house.
You know, we had a pool.
Because it was Houston, because it was often very hot, there was a lot of swimming.
NARRATOR: The neighborhood was buzzing with trainee astronauts.
BUZZ ALDRIN: There was this guy in the backyard, in front of the garage where there's a lot of cement, and here's this guy roller skating.
I said, "Who's that?"
They said, "Oh, that's Neil Armstrong."
NARRATOR: By 1964, NASA's blueprint to reach the Moon was taking shape, as this animated film of the time shows.
It was called Project Apollo.
The plan went like this: guzzling 15 tons of fuel a second at launch, the giant Saturn V rocket would send the Apollo spacecraft, both the Command and Lunar Module, into space.
After about 69 hours, they go into orbit around the Moon.
NARRATOR: Once there, the spacecraft undock.
The command module remains in orbit while the lunar module attempts the landing.
After exploring the surface, the two astronauts rejoin their companion in lunar orbit.
Finally, they leave lunar orbit and make the trip back to Earth.
And the mission ends with the Command Module re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific.
NARRATOR: It looked great on paper, but could it work?
Finding out was the task of Project Gemini.
CHAIKIN: The demands of a lunar mission were so great.
You had to learn how to rendezvous in space, you had to keep people happy and healthy for up to two weeks in space, they had to be able to work in the vacuum of space in a spacesuit, a pressurized suit.
CHAIKIN: So Gemini was really the way that NASA could learn to master these complexies in the relative safety of low-Earth orbit.
NARRATOR: Armstrong's first space flight was Gemini 8 in 1966, a daring mission to attempt the first docking in space with an unmanned spacecraft called Agena.
His co-pilot was Dave Scott.
DAVE SCOTT: Well, yes, I mean, the whole program depended on docking.
Docking had to be proven or we couldn't go to the Moon.
So it was a criticalission, yes.
NARRATOR: Squeezed into their tight-fitting Gemini capsule, the pair prepared for launch.
Neither of them knew what lay in store.
MISSION CONTROL: Three, two, one, zero.
We have ignition.
And we have a lift-off at three seconds.
Neil Armstrong reports the clock has started.
Roll program is in, Armstrong says.
JANET ARMSTRONG: Well, in our homes during the flight, we had air-to-ground communications.
We called them the squawk box because it squawked all the time.
MISSION CONTROL: Roger, we have staging.
JANET ARMSTRONG: When they talked air-to-ground, you could update yourself.
They started out just great.
ARMSTRONG: Okay, we've got a visual on the Agena at 76 miles.
MISSION CONTROL: Roger, understand, visual on the Agena at 76 miles.
NARRATOR: Their docking target, the Agena rocket, had been launched earlier that day.
NARRATOR: As Armstrong and Scott passed into the night side of the Earth, they prepared for docking.
MISSION CONTROL: Okay, Gemini 8, you're looking good on the ground.
Go ahead and dock.
SCOTT: Neil eased it forward, and we moved right in.
NARRATOR: But within half an hour, Scott realized there was something wrong.
You're supposed to fly straight and level like an airplane, but all of a sudden, I noticed that we were tilted.
NARRATOR: They didn't know it, but a small maneuvering thruster on their Gemini spacecraft had become stuck and was firing.
ARMSTRONG: We first suspected that the Agena was the culprit.
We were on the dark side of the Earth, so we really didn't have any outside reference.
NARRATOR: Out of contact with the ground, the astronauts struggled to regain control.
SCOTT: So I said, "Neil, we'd better get off."
He said, "Yeah, we'd better get off, let's prepare to undock."
And he says, "Ready?"
And I put my hand on the switch.
Neil says, "Undock."
And then things start really moving.
SCOTT: Then we go into a very rapid roll which was almost a tumble, and at that point we realized that it wasn't the Agena, it must be the Gemini.
JANET ARMSTRONG: They were spinning at maybe a revolution per second.
NARRATOR: At home, a photographer from Life magazine captured Janet as she listened to the unfolding drama.
JANET ARMSTRONG: And there was a very strong concern that they would black out.
And that would be it.
It woulde over.
And then NASA cut the squawk box.
I didn't like that.
So I went over to NASA, and I was refused entry.
NARRATOR: Back in orbit, Armstrong kept his cool, figuring out his only remaining option: disengage all the maneuvering thrusters including the one that was stuck and use the re-entry thrusters to counteract the tumbling and regain control of the spacecraft.
He had to reach up above his head and throw switches under this high-speed roll.
That's amazing that he was able to do that and he knew exactly where the switches were, exactly which ones to throw.
SCOTT: I mean, the guy was brilliant.
He knew the system so well that he found the solution, he activated the solution under extreme circumstances, and I got to say it was my lucky day to be flying with Mr. Neil Armstrong.
NARRATOR: Activating the re-entry thrusters meant aborting the mission, and a couple of hours later, the crew splashed down in the South China Sea.
Armstrong had cut short the flight, but he'd saved their lives.
JANET ARMSTRONG: He landed and came home.
You know, he's telling me about the flight.
We knew that they could have lost their life, and you knew that anyway, so there's no point in talking about it.
You either do or you don't.
That's the way it is, you know?
CHAIKIN: That was sort of NASA's baptism of fire, because it was the first time that astronauts had really come close to losing their lives on a space flight.
I don't think there's any doubt that the people who were running the show in Houston saw Neil's performance on Gemini 8 as a real demonstration of what he was capable of under pressure, in a crisis.
NARRATOR: The full risks of the space program hit home less than a year later in January 1967, when the Apollo 1 spacecraft caught fire on the pad, killing its three-man crew: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
Armstrong found himself burying his friends.
SCOTT: Everybody's attitude that I knew was, "This is a real disaster, but we go on "because we know Gus and Ed and Roger would want us to go on, wouldn't want us to stop."
NARRATOR: Overhauling Apollo took almost two years.
Eager to make up for lost time, NASA launched Apollos 7, 8, 9 and 10 in quick succession.
They were designed to rigorously test every aspect of Apollo in Earth and lunar orbit.
Armstrong's next trip into space hinged on the success of these missions.
NASA's flight roster called for him to be back-up commander of Apollo 8 in December 1968, and it placed him in line to command Apollo 11.
As it turned out, this would be the first mission to attempt a landing on the Moon.
CHAIKIN: Nobody thought that all those preliminary flights would go as perfectly as they did.
And nobody would have predicted that you would arrive at July 1969 and Apollo 11 would actually be the first attempt to land on the Moon.
NARRATOR: Joining Armstrong was Command Module pilot Mike Collins.
Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin would attempt the landing with Neil.
If all went well, Commander Armstrong would be first out on the Moon.
But in characteristic fashion, he played it down.
CHARLIE DUKE: Neil's attitude is, "I'm not going to be number one on the Moon."
What I saw in his attitude was, "I'm training to be the first one to attempt the landing on the Moon."
NARRATOR: Landing on the Moon would be unlike anything anyone had experienced.
To get a feel of flying in lunar gravity, Armstrong practiced in this-- the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle-- affectionately called the Flying Bedstead.
CHAIKIN: It was not the most stable flying machine that you could ever step into.
If you tilted too far over or if something happened to the rocket engines, you'd fall out of the sky and you'd be dead.
SCOTT: It was difficult to fly.
But on the other hand, I think we all felt that absolutely mandatory to be able to fly that type vehicle before you go to the Moon.
NARRATOR: On one of Armstrong's flights, a failure of the fuel system meant he lost control.
He was lucky to escape with his life.
But he brushed it off as if nothing had happened.
CHAIKIN: And that was so classic Neil Armstrong, that he wasn't gonna let that get in the way of the rest of his day.
He said there was work to do, and he did it.
NARRATOR: Cape Kennedy, Florida.
Over a million people came to watch Apollo 11 leave for the Moon on July 16, 1969.
Among them was Armstrong's childhood friend.
SOLACOFF: The day before the launch, we had a tour of the facilities there at Cape Kennedy, and we stood in front of the rocket while my wife took our picture, and we shook our hands and we said congratulations that we finally got Neil on a good job at last, and then we gave him a salute.
We didn't say goode.
It was more like good luck.
And he leaned over and gave me a little peck on the cheek, just a little bitty kiss.
And then he turned around and was gone.
MISSION CONTROL: Launch Operations Manager Paul Donnelly wishes the crew on the launch teams we have good luck and godspeed.
Neil Armstrong reported back when he received the good wishes, "Thank you very much.
We know it will be a good flight."
SOLACOFF: Actually, my wife took the movies.
I was taking 35mm shots.
MISSION CONTROL: Lift off, we have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour, lift-off on Apollo 11.
RICK ARMSTRONG: You feel it.
Your body feels it inside.
It shakes in a way that nothing else does.
SOLACOFF: I kept saying, "Go Neil, go Neil, go Neil, go Neil!"
NARRATOR: Four days later, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin would arrive at the Moon.
Then they'd attempt one of the most daring exploits in human history.
ARMSTRONG: We were certainly aware that the nation's hopes largely rested on us doing the very best job we could.
MISSION CONTROL: And Armstrong and Aldrin within the LM.
That will be their home for the next 30 hours or so.
NARRATOR: As they descended towards the surface in the Lunar Module-- the Eagle-- the world held its breath, as did Mike Collins orbiting above in Columbia, the Command Module.
COLLINS: I figured that our chances of 100% success were about 50/50.
There were just so many things that could go wrong.
NARRATOR: Collins was soon proved right.
DUKE: As they went around the Moon, the bottom fell out.
We started having communication problems and data dropout.
NARRATOR: Then Eagle's computer began to raise a series of alarms.
NARRATOR: With so many computations to make, it had become overloaded.
CHAIKIN: The danger wasn't the big worry, really.
It was the complexity.
I mean, nobody had ever tried a manned rocket landing before.
BUZZ ALDRIN: Neither of us knew what "1202" meant.
We knew where we could find the answer, but it was in a document about that thick, and you'd have to leaf through it, and here we are halfway down landing on the Moon.
But there's a bunch of guys back on Earth.
They can look it up.
NARRATOR: In Mission Control, the team found an answer in 23 seconds.
"Ignore the alarm.
It's a computer glitch caused by overloading."
NARRATOR: Now, just 3,000 feet above the surface, everything hinged on the skill of one man.
Oh, I was in my bedroom.
We were tracking it on a map as they pointed out verbally where they were.
NARRATOR: Low on fuel, Armstrong still needed a safe place to land.
ARMSTRONG: It was a fairly steep slope and it was covered with very big rocks, and it just wasn't a good place to land.
The old Neil took over, and he was focused on doing a landing.
That was his one opportunity in a lifetime to make a landing on the Moon.
ARMSTRONG: I wanted to make it as easy for myself as I could.
There was a lot of concern about coming close to running out of fuel.
NARRATOR: Only 30 seconds of fuel remained.
Everything depended on Armstrong.
I just jumped up and down and screamed and cried and yelled and everything.
COLLINS: I was in orbit of course when they landed, and I gave a little sigh of relief.
NARRATOR: For Armstrong, this was the culmination of a career that had constantly pushed his flying skills and his nerve to the limit.
CHAIKIN: It's almost as if you... if you were going to design the career of somebody who was going to do the first landing on the Moon, I can't imagine how you would put together a better mix of experiences than the ones Neil Armstrong had.
NARRATOR: With the astronauts safely down, press attention turned to their wives.
From Janet, everyone wanted to know what Neil would say when he first stepped outside.
REPORTER: Do you have any inkling what he's going to say?
He wouldn't tell us.
When he steps out on the Moon.
No, I have no idea what he's going to say, but whatever he says, I'm sure it will be worthwhile.
ARMSTRONG: You need more slack, Buzz?
ALDRIN: No-- hold it just a minute.
NARRATOR: But Armstrong had given it some thought before, as his brother Dean remembers.
DEAN ARMSTRONG: Before he went to the Cape, he invited me down to be with him and spend a little time with him.
He said, "Why don't you and I, when the boys go to bed, why don't we play a game of Risk?"
And I said, "Well, I'd enjoy that."
We started playing Risk, and then he slipped me a piece of paper and said, "Read that."
And I did.
And on that piece of paper, there was, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
He says, "What do you think about that?"
I said, "Fabulous."
People have had so many different versions of when and how Neil thought up those words.
It was, "That's one small step for a man."
What he said when he came back from the flight was that he had given some thought to it before the mission, but he didn't decide what to say until he and Buzz were on the surface of the Moon in the Lunar Module before they got suited up to go outside.
ARMSTRONG: I'm going to pull it now.
MISSION CONTROL: And we're getting a picture on the TV.
It was somewhat difficult to see.
I mean, we were watching our sets like this because we weren't quite sure if he was coming down the step.
ARMSTRONG: Okay, I'm going to step off the LM now.
That's one small step for a man... one giant leap for mankind.
It was pure Neil.
I was pretty close to him when he said that.
There you go.
He was really surprising in how he would say just the right thing at the right time.
It's overjoy, you know?
I've never had such great feelings in my life.
ARMSTRONG: Ain't that something!
Magnificent sight out here.
ALDRIN: Magnificent desolation.
PAT COLLINS: Finally, it began to sink in with me.
That really is another planet.
MISSION CONTROL: The EVA is progressing beautifully.
I believe they are setting up the flag now.
NARRATOR: After years of preparation, the first two human beings on the Moon simply marveled at what they were seeing.
NARRATOR: Two and a half hours later, the pair had climbed back inside the Eagle.
MISSION CONTROL: We'd like to say, from all of us and all the countries in the entire world, we think that you've done a magnificent job up there today.
BUZZ ALDRIN: He got me there.
He got me back safe.
And I made a couple of mistakes.
Fortunately, they... they were not that crucial, and I'm not going to tell you about them.
(chuckling) (cheering) NARRATOR: A brief period in quarantine would be the crew's only respite before madness erupted.
Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer and test pilot from small-town America, was suddenly a celebrity.
We did New York, Chicago and L.A. all in one day.
There was thousands and thousands of people, and people from windows above and apartments and so on.
It was fabulous.
It was like nothing I'd ever seen before in my life or ever had done before in my life.
NARRATOR: The schedule was punishing, with the astronauts placed in the role of international ambassadors.
With their wives, they visited 23 countries in just 45 days.
Their mission now was to shake hands with the world, and everyone was eager to meet the first man on the Moon.
PAT COLLINS: We went to each country, and it would be of course a huge welcome at the airport, which called for a speech, a huge luncheon or something, which called for a speech, and then there would be the major state dinner, which called for a speech!
And I always felt that Neil had the responsibility-- the burden, if you will-- of always saying the perfect thing.
He was the star, but I have to say he had a pretty darn good supporting cast.
JANET ARMSTRONG: This was the beginning.
This was the beginning of it all.
But there was nothing you could do.
I mean, these people were just happy to see you!
One of the other Apollo astronauts told me that when it comes to fame, it's like they're all a college football team and Neil is the only guy in the NFL.
I mean, he was on another plane.
HOFFMAN: People wanted a piece of him.
"I either want your autograph or I want my picture taken with you."
And I think that it wasn't just anyone; it was everyone.
NARRATOR: The intense level of intrusion into Armstrong's life would eventually take its toll on him and his family.
RICK ARMSTRONG: To be out to dinner and sort of minding your own business and to have people, you know, looking at you and going, "Oh, do you know who that is?"
and coming over and, "May I have your autograph please?"
After a while, even if they do it in the nicest possible way, which many of them did, still, it just wears you out after a while.
And he really didn't know what he wanted to do, also.
That was a problem.
"What am I going to do now?"
NARRATOR: In 1971, Armstrong resigned from NASA.
He chose instead to pursue his first love, aircraft design, and accepted a professorship at the University of Cincinnati, back in his home state.
JANET ARMSTRONG: Well, we were looking for a place to live, and he wanted to live out in the country.
I guess he wanted to escape people.
He wanted privacy.
NARRATOR: The Armstrongs bought this secluded farm in Ohio.
It was a radical change of lifestyle, and not just for Neil.
MARK ARMSTRONG: I'm not sure that Mom really wanted the farm life, but she did very well, and she was a trooper.
NARRATOR: Janet found herself managing the farm as Neil concentrated oneaching.
But escaping his fame was never going to be easy.
RON HUSTON: Whenever Neil Armstrong came onto the campus, there was a number of rather interesting reactions.
Well, the first day was rather chaotic.
As class was letting out, the media was massed outside the classroom, and he did in fact push the students out of the classroom and then quickly closed the door with himself inside the classroom.
NARRATOR: Eventually, behind the closed doors of academia, Armstrong found refuge from the constant public spotlight.
HUSTON: I began to think of him as simply "Neil," not as "Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon."
I just thought of him as Neil.
NARRATOR: But outside the university, the burden of celebrity still sat uncomfortably with him.
JANET ARMSTRONG: He was given the credit and he didn't think he deserved it all.
NARRATOR: Armstrong eventually opted to ration interview requests, creating the mistaken impression that he was a recluse.
He just didn't feel the need to notify the media about what he was doing, you know?
So a media recluse maybe, but that's a completely different thing.
NARRATOR: In 1979, Armstrong left the university, becoming involved as a business spokesman and serving on many corporate and philanthropic boards.
He was doing so many different things with his time, but they were the things that he chose to do, and that didn't include living out his life in front of a television camera.
Challenger, go at throttle up.
ASTRONAUT: Roger, go at throttle up.
NARRATOR: And in 1986, he was appointed vice chair of the Rogers Commission, the committee that investigated the tragic events that led to the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger.
His calendar was double-parked all the time.
He was a workaholic, and that was just in his DNA.
So it was, I think, Dad's strong work ethic and Mom's isolation on the farm that eventually came between them.
NARRATOR: Janet and Neil separated in 1990, divorcing four years later.
MARK ARMSTRONG: I just think it sort of opened his eyes a little bit and made him aware that... that he didn't have to work all the time.
And that was very good for him.
It put him in a great position to meet other people.
PAT COLLINS: All the men have certainly, as we say quietly, mellowed so that they are more relaxed, they are more ready to just spend time doing something just for fun.
Dr. Neil Armstrong, ladies and gentlemen.
(applause) ARMSTRONG: Thank you so much!
The method we used to descend from orbit to the surface of an alien world, uh...
(crowd laughs) But it would have been far more efficient and far less traumatic if we could just be beamed down.
(applause) NARRATOR: But Armstrong was far less sanguine about the direction the real space program was taking, and testified before Congress in 2010.
If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered.
CHAIKIN: I saw in him and in the other Apollo astronauts a frustration that here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and we're still confined to those first couple of hundred miles above the Earth, and I think it was a source of frustration to him.
NARRATOR: Armstrong turned 80 in 2010, and to mark the occasion, his second wife, Carol Knight, planned a celebration.
CAROL ARMSTRONG: I thought we could have a surprise party and it would be a lot of fun.
And I had about 250 people on the list.
I think he was surprised.
He put on a good act if he wasn't.
SOLACOFF: After almost everybody had left, you know, I went up to him and congratulated him on his birthday and everything, and he hugged me and he says, "You know I love you," and I said, "I do too, Neil.
We go back a long ways."
He said, "Yeah, we do."
And that was the last time.
NARRATOR: On the 7th of August, 2012, Neil Armstrong was admitted to the hospital for heart surgery.
He remained there until his death on August 25.
MARK ARMSTRONG: If there's a legacy, I think he may have left it already.
He very much wanted the exploration of space to be an accomplishment that was important for this planet and everyone on it.
His inspiration to the generations that will follow is incalculable, I believe.
RICK ARMSTRONG: It's overwhelming to think about how much has come from that inspiration.
If there was something that he could pass along to, you know, future generations, I think it would be the conviction to do the right thing.
CHAIKIN: I mean, he went to the Moon.
He risked his life for the nation, and that would be reason enough to call Neil Armstrong a hero, but for me, the thing that really stands out is how he handled this role that fate gave him of being a world icon.
One thing, he was true to himself.
He was the man that you saw.
That was him.
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Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH access.wgbh.org