Indianapolis Monthly

THE NEXT NEIL ARMSTRONG

ON THE DAY man first walked the moon—Sunday, July 20, 1969—Indiana slowed to a hush. Days earlier, in a press conference where he praised Hoosier manufacturers for their contribution to space exploration, Governor Edgar Whitcomb had declared July 21 “Apollo 11 Day.” When that Monday arrived, banks and other businesses closed, as towns across the state united in celebration. In West Lafayette, Purdue University dismissed summer classes early so faculty, staff, and students could cheer one of their own making history. Fittingly, as in the rest of the country, no storyline loomed larger in the college town. From the July 16 launch, front pages of the Lafayette Journal and Courier documented every stage of the operation, with special focus on Neil Armstrong, a 1955 Purdue alum who had captured the national imagination as Apollo 11’s mission commander. Aft er Armstrong took his small step and uttered perhaps the most famous words in recorded history, a banner headline in the paper screamed “MAN SETS FOOT ON MOON AND EAGLE FLIES AGAIN” and featured an Associated Press story that assured readers “Moon Not Made of Cheese,” next to another that boasted “Neil Armstrong, Purdue Graduate, All-Time Hero.”

As Purdue prepares students formissions to the moon and Mars, the world’s next Neil Armstrong—or Gus Grissom or Gene Cernanor David Wolf—will scarcelyresemble the original.

It was a heady turn for the quiet Midwesterner who had led the most grounded of lives at Purdue that included band, clubs, and fraternity fun. When Armstrong and his crew, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, returned to Earth and were released from a three-week quarantine, they were treated to ticker-tape parades in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Richard Nixon; visited 25 countries and world leaders like Queen Elizabeth II on a 45-day tour; and addressed a joint session of Congress.

A decade later, when the world had caught its breath, the public was still eager to celebrate astronauts and hungry to decode ciphers like Armstrong.

What was it, wondered Tom Wolfe in his 1979 book , “that makes a man sit up on the top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?” Wolfe concluded it was an “ineffable quality” of bravery, the brand of which would give a man the “ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day,

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