Astronaut rarely gave interviews but regaled Australian audience in May with Apollo 11 memories and worries about Nasa
It was not an expected setting in which Neil Armstrong found himself when giving his final interview earlier this year. But perhaps that was appropriate, given his achievements. In May, the Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia secured almost an hour of the former astronaut’s time to discuss his 1969 expedition to the moon.
Chief executive Alex Malley masterminded the scoop by appealing to Armstrong’s family background – his father Stephen worked as an auditor for the Ohio state government.
Armstrong, who rarely gave interviews, regaled his audience with news of how he thought Apollo 11, which carried him, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon, only had a “50-50 chance” of landing safely on its surface and a 90% chance of returning home.
He said it was “sad” that the current US government’s ambitions for Nasa were so reduced compared with the achievements of the 1960s.
“Nasa has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve,” said Armstrong. “It’s sad that we are turning the program in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people.”
He said the short-term nature of decision-making was doing a disservice to the agency, adding: “I’m substantially concerned about the policy directions of the space agency. We have a situation in the US where the White House and Congress are at odds over what the future direction should be. They’re sort of playing a game and Nasa is the shuttlecock that they’re hitting back and forth.”
Armstrong had opened up about his parents, his boyhood fascination with flight and his experiences of flying fighter planes in the Korean war.
He also expressed a sense of fate about his work as a test pilot and astronaut, refusing to worry about future tasks because he thought something would go wrong first and he’d be otherwise engaged firing the ejection seat or scrambling to repair a valve.
As the launch day approached, Armstrong said preparations were on schedule. “A month before the launch of Apollo 11, we decided that we were confident enough we could try and attempt … a descent to the surface.”
Armstrong remembered the moment when he got the call to ask him if the rest of the crew of Apollo 11 were ready to land on the moon.
“The bosses asked, ‘Do you think you and your guys are ready?’ I said it’d be nice to have another month, but we’re in a race here and we had to take the opportunity when we had it. I had to say we are ready, we are ready to go.”
He described the crew’s harrowing 12-minute descent to the moon, when he realised that the Eagle lunar module’s auto-pilot was preparing to land the crew on the slope of a huge moon crater. “The computer showed us where it intended to land, and it was a very bad location, on the side of a large crater about 100-150m in diameter with very steep slopes covered with very large boulders – not a good place to land at all,” he said.
Armstrong took over the craft manually and managed to land it like a helicopter in a smoother area to the west with just 20 seconds of fuel left.
As for “that’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong says he didn’t think of those words until after they’d landed safely.
Of his time on the moon’s surface, he said: “It was special and memorable but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do. We weren’t there to meditate. We were there to get things done. So we got on with it.”
Armstrong even had time to respond to the conspiracy theorists’ favourite question: Was the moon landing faked?
“People love conspiracy theories,” he replied. “I mean, they are very attractive. But it was never a concern to me because I know one day, somebody is going to go fly back up there and pick up that camera I left.”