We didn’t know him. We didn’t have to. We knew all we needed to know: his name was Neil Armstrong, he flew to the Moon, and he put a human print on the surface of another celestial body. The act was so audacious, so revelatory of mankind’s potential, that the usual machinery of pop-culture celebrity seemed abashed: this one gets a pass. This one stands apart. When you heard he died you may have struggled to call up the face, and all you got was a publicity photo of an ordinary fellow with a Rotarian grin. He was as remote and unreachable as the moon itself. That was okay with Neil; that was okay with everyone else, too.
He’s remembered for one thing, but he had a life before, and a life afterwards. The latter is more fascinating. How does a man incorporate such an accomplishment into his life? When does he start defining himself by something else? He had the life we all have: birthdays, toothaches, haircuts, oil changes. But when he looked up at night he saw something in the sky that had shone down on humanity from cave-age to yesterday, and he knew his relationship with Luna would always be unique. No one else would ever be first.
None of which matters when you’re on your hands and knees looking for your fingertip.
One day on his farm in 1979 he jumped off the back of his truck – you know he didn’t think heh, one small leap, because this was the farm, this was work – and his ring caught on a wheel. Ripped off part of his finger. He found it, eventually. Packed it in ice, drove to the hospital, had it put back on. When you come down to it, the hand is something NASA might develop: multiple redundancy – but I’m reasonably sure he wasn’t thinking “I used that finger to guide the Eagle to a safe landing spot.” It was bleeding. It hurt.
He was just a man on a farm, and these things happen…
I was certainly aware that this was a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade and that the nation’s hopes and outward appearance largely rested on how the results came out. With those pressures, it seemed the most important thing to do was focus on our job as best we were able to and try to allow nothing to distract us from doing the very best job we could. . . .
Each of the components of our hardware were designed to certain reliability specifications, and far the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I’ve been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about [1,000] separate identifiable failures.
In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, [substantially] better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have. I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, “If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.” And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off. . . .
When I was working here at the Johnson Space Center, then the Manned Spacecraft Center, you could stand across the street and you could not tell when quitting time was, because people didn’t leave at quitting time in those days. People just worked, and they worked until whatever their job was done, and if they had to be there until five o’clock or seven o’clock or nine-thirty or whatever it was, they were just there. They did it, and then they went home. So four o’clock or four-thirty, whenever the bell rings, you didn’t see anybody leaving. Everybody was still working.
The way that happens and the way that made it different from other sectors of the government to which some people are sometimes properly critical is that this was a project in which everybody involved was, one, interested, two, dedicated, and, three, fascinated by the job they were doing. And whenever you have those ingredients, whether it be government or private industry or a retail store, you’re going to win.