Watching Neil Armstrong landing himself and Buzz Aldrin safely on the surface of the moon in 1969 I made a note to add him to my schoolboy list of heroes, where he has firmly remained.
What caught my imagination was his courage in making the decision to take over from the computer guidance system and use his own experience and training to fly the the landing module away from a rocky surface to a safer landing place. Over the years I have read about the science and engineering behind the successful moon mission, as well as the complex organisation that managed over 400,000 people to successfully land people on the moon. But for me, Neil Armstrong engineering’s career stands out, and he epitomises the type of engineer that we need today.
Neil Armstrong was passionate about flight and aerodynamic engineering from an early age. There is a story told by an old school friend about the time that they were trying to make their rubber powered model aeroplanes fly longer. His friend gave his plane a few extra turns on the propellor to make it fly longer. But Neil built a small wind tunnel in the basement of his home, that shook the house when it was switched on, to explore the effects of aerodynamics on the design of the plane. This fascination in flight can be traced throughout his career. His first flight was at age 16 years, and continued through university where he studied aerodynamics. He showed great courage and skill as a combat pilot during the Korean War which involved the dangerous task of landing on an aircraft carrier. After the war he was a test pilot flying experimental planes such as the X-15 where he caught the attention of NASA. After the successful moon landing he headed the Department of Aeronautics at Cincinati University. Looking over his career there are a number of observations that are crucial for future engineers. They must be passionate about the area of engineering that they are interested in. This passion will keep them going when overcoming many barriers such as lack of funding for a project, or getting an organisation’s support for an R&D project, or inspiring a team when the problems seem overpowering.
I also admired Neil Armstrong’s ability to weather criticism. It is hard to imagine but when he spoke the famous “One small step for man one giant leap for mankind” he was later challenged that it should have been “one small step for a man!” He maintained that he did say “a man” but due to the transmission the “a” had got lost. The criticism continued throughout his lifetime. Another criticism that he faced was about his flying competence. Although he was admired by many colleagues for his technical proficiency with aircraft, owed in part to his engineering training, others, mainly of the ‘top-gun’ type said that he lacked a natural feel for aircraft. Indeed his involvement in several high-profile near-miss incidents as a test pilot did very little to convince his critics that an engineer belonged in a cockpit. As an engineer, criticism is part of the job. Whether it is about budget overspend, failing to meet an overambitious specification or criticism from people who don’t appreciate the complexities of engineering.
We need more engineers with an Neil Armstrong attitude. They need to take the many facets of engineering and apply them to areas such as health, transportation, infrastructure, energy or information. But there is one overriding challenge that will require a critical engineering effort and that is the reduction in global warming and its impact on climate change. Maybe the next gigantic step for mankind will be here on Earth.
To see a rare interview where Neil Armstrong discusses his life then click on the following: Youtube video