As we approach the 45th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon, journalist and author Neil McAleer has been looking back at an interview he conducted with Neil Armstrong on March 16, 1989. The author of Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke (Clarke Project, 2012), McAleer has lived among and written about the space community for many years. We learn little about Clarke from this interview, but Armstrong’s character comes through — he’s terse, focused, always impatient to get back to work. I suspect Centauri Dreams regular Al Jackson, who worked with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in his role as astronaut trainer on the Lunar Module Simulator (see The Magicians of Confidence), will recognize Armstrong’s mode here immediately. His self-imposed distance could never conceal the cool competence he displayed on the most breathtaking descent in history.
An interview conducted by Neil McAleer
I requested this interview with Neil Armstrong 25 years ago, when I was writing and researching the first edition of my Arthur C. Clarke biography. That work was the reason. I wanted to know how they met and what kind of relationship they had during the early years of the Space Age.
The interview’s first question, not on tape, asked Mr. Armstrong if he knew how Arthur C. Clarke’s substantial Epilogue (“Beyond Apollo”) for the book First on the Moon came about.
[Armstrong] “I just don’t have that kind of information.”
This book—subtitled, “A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.”–is considered the official eyewitness account of Apollo 11’s journey to the moon’s surface and return to Earth. It was published in 1970, the year after their historic mission.
[McAleer] “Did you ever actually meet Clarke, by the way?”
[Armstrong] “Yes. We attended a NASA meeting for a couple of days, and I can’t remember where it was. It seems to me it was somewhere in Virginia. [Wallops Island I found out later]. It must have been around 1970.”
[McAleer] “Did it have anything to do with the book, First on the Moon, or the afterword Clarke wrote for it?”
[Armstrong] “No, It had nothing to do with that. NASA gathered together a number of people, primarily NASA senior executives, but there were a number of non-NASA personnel also invited as well. And they were looking at the future. The purpose was to look at what the important forces and functions in the years to come might be. Arthur was an invited attendee, and I had a chance to chat. . . .”
Image: Neil Armstrong and Arthur Clarke met for the first time during a NASA conference held on Wallops Island, VA in June 1970, having shared the bus that took them out to Wallops from NASA headquarters.
A computer alarm, a harsh buzzer, sounds loudly in the background.
“Hold on!” says Armstrong, and attends to the alarm and computer challenge.
I waited about a minute and started to ask another question too soon.
“Hold on a second; I got another problem here . . . a little bit of bedlam.”
That phrase, “ a little bit of bedlam” took me back in time—I was thinking that this was an earthbound analogy to the computer program alarms that set off during the final descent of Apollo 11‘s Excursion Module, the Eagle, to the moon’s surface. The first alarm sounded at about 6,000 feet above the lunar surface. And several more sounded as Eagle descended. Soon NASA made the call that the computer overload alarms were related to the rendezvous radar, and not the landing radar.
Then the second real problem: fuel supply getting extremely low and visibility poor because of kicked up dust near the surface. The fuel supply was then 20 seconds as Armstrong hunted for a smooth site without large boulders and Aldrin kept calling out Eagle’s relative position changes.
Commander Neil Armstrong and Pilot Buzz Aldrin used those seconds well and set the Eagle down–safely, without any dents, as history turned out–on the Sea of Tranquility.
A minute or two later, Armstrong was back at the phone. I gave up my flashback memories and returned to the interview—shifting from the 1970 conference to his years at Purdue University.
[McAleer] “You were in your early 20s, at Purdue, probably bogged down in engineering texts. Had you read any of Arthur’s books early on? In ’52 Clarke’s Exploration of Space was published, for example, which explored the future of space travel.”
[Armstrong] “I can’t recall. I might have started reading . . . I don’t remember things that he wrote, and that I might have read, or any impact they may have had [early in his college years]. I read many of his books subsequently, but I don’t know if they were important to me in those years.
Image: NASA Tests pilots Neil Armstrong and James W. Wood (seated) working inside the simulator for the experimental Dyna-Soar spaceplane program, 1960, Edwards Air Force Base.
[McAleer] “You read the novel 2001? Before Apollo 11?”
[Armstrong] “I saw the movie. I don’t know if I read the book at that point. There were a lot of books at some point in time but I don’t know when I might have read them.”
I then told Armstrong I was looking for early influences, like Joe Allen, the astronaut, being influenced by early Clarke books. Like Carl Sagan. I refer back to his conversation with Clarke, and I say, “at the luncheon” (intending to add “of the conference,” but did not) an assumption on my part. He corrects me immediately.
[Armstrong] “Not a luncheon. It was a couple-of-day meeting, and people were giving papers and so on, and I had a chance to chat with him some at that time. And I may have met, bumped into him at other times as well; I . . . I just don’t recall.”
[McAleer] “So you don’t recall any specific conversation, even about any of the papers delivered?”
[Armstrong] “No I don’t.”
I decided—time to move on. Armstrong had a meaningful, adventurous, chock-full life, with countless specific details. Why should he be able to remember the kind of detail I was after? So I transitioned from past to present.
[McAleer] What do you think about Mike Collins’ new book, Lift Off?
[Armstrong] “It’s a good book. It’s typical Mike.” [he says, and follows with a little laugh]
[McAleer] “When is Armstrong going to tell his story? Ever?”
[Armstrong] “Well, I think the story is well documented. Since we were completely open with everything we saw, felt, heard, and ah . . . experienced at the time, there is little that can be added in retrospect that would add significantly to the history.”
[McAleer] “Even your early years? Anything out about your youth, getting a flying license, your early flying experiences?”
[Armstrong] “Ah . . . I don’t know what that has to do with Arthur Clarke.”
Armstrong’s consistency and focus wouldn’t let an interviewer–including me!–get off subject! His skepticism about some journalists, based on some bad experiences with aggressive, less-principled, and “getting it wrong” reporters, was well known.
I just fell back on the truth for a defense.
[McAleer] “It doesn’t,” I confessed. “I’m making a quick transition here. I just hope someday there will be a Neil Armstrong story.”
[Armstrong] “Well, perhaps there will be something sometime.”
[McAleer] “But you don’t have any plans to move ahead with it?”
[Armstrong] “I do not.”
[McAleer] “Will you be participating in the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 in any way?”
[Armstrong] “NASA has a number of activities scheduled that I’ll participate in.”
Image: Less than 10 years after working in the Dyna-Soar simulator, Neil Armstrong was training in the Apollo program’s Lunar Excursion Module simulator in Houston—with all the “bells and whistles.”
He paused for a second or two and then went back to the beginning of our interview. “You asked about his foreword? [for First on the Moon]
[McAleer] “Afterword,” I corrected (actually an Epilogue).
[Armstrong] “Yes, as far as I know that was not organized by the crew. That was done by Little Brown. I don’t think the crew had any discussions with Mr. Clarke about that. The crew had no participation in that.”
We had gone full circle. Armstrong had finally answered my first question precisely. Perhaps this was when the curtain comes down-—at full cycle. Yet I still wanted a few more minutes of his time. When you have the first man who stepped on the surface of the moon on the phone, you just don’t want to hang up too quickly.
I then talked to Armstrong about the idea of a 25th anniversary Apollo 11 book, and connected to that, my forthcoming meeting and interview with Ian Ballantine and his wife Betty, pioneers in paperback book publishing in the United States after WWII. Witness the year 1953: The Ballantines published many books, but among them were the first editions of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. That was a good year, 1953, for science fiction.
[Armstrong] “It’s not something that jumps out at me, but I remain open . . . . “
[McAleer] So everything’s going well?”
[Armstrong] “No complaints.”
[McAleer] “Good. So any idea about when you’re going to retire?”
[Armstrong laughs] “I don’t have any idea.”
[McAleer] “The conference in 1970-—Were Mike and Buzz there?”
[Armstrong] “It didn’t have anything to do with Apollo 11. It was during the time that I was a NASA bureaucrat. I was there as part of my responsibility at NASA in Washington. I was there in an official capacity.”
[McAleer] Did you deliver a paper or anything?”
[Armstrong] “I don’t remember that I did. I just don’t recall. Clarke was the only person from what you might call the . . . [he hesitates] ‘writer’s world’. I attended a lot of these kinds of meetings. What should be going on in the future of NASA? In regards to the program planning? There were astronomers, biologists, program managers there. My responsibility was not space but aeronautics. Arthur was on the space side; that’s why he was invited.”
It was closing time; past it actually. I knew for sure.
Image: Bird’s-eye view of the support components and scientists running the Apollo LEM simulator in Houston to train Apollo crew members. That’s Centauri Dreams contributor Al Jackson facing the camera at the main console.
[McAleer] “Mr. Armstrong, I’m sorry my ‘short phone call’ took a little longer than I thought.”
[Armstrong] “Well, that’s all right. I’m sorry there wasn’t anything that would be much help to you, as I said at the beginning.”
I couldn’t remember him saying that–probably because I didn’t want to hear it.
Finally I thanked him for his perspective and help, and we said goodbye.
Some interviews can often turn out to be important in an entirely different way than intended. I learned that he was still dealing with program alarms and computers in his work some 20 years after the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and back. I consider that fact amazing.
Armstrong was chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation (CTA, Inc.) for most of the 1980s, including 1989, the year of this interview. The company was based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it provided software for flight scheduling and support activities. This software was important to corporate jet operators to maximize the efficient use of their aircraft. And even before the Apollo 11 mission, in Armstrong’s early years of running and designing flight simulations—he had plenty of alarms as a test pilot. So computer program alarms were common events throughout much of his career—including March 16, 1989.
Actually, as my research on Clarke went forth, I did learn an important aspect of the relationship between Clarke and Armstrong. I learned that most of their primary contacts were through occasional written correspondence over the years or news from third parties. Their face-to-face meetings were very rare—possibly only that one time on Wallops Island, Virginia in 1970.
In one of the many appearances and interviews Armstrong did with Collins and Aldrin a few months later for the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, he said this:
“We are amazed by, enthralled by, then bored by, and eventually forget some new things usually within one revolution of the Earth around the sun. That’s the way humans are. And so it’s a great surprise to me that so many people remember something that happened 20 years ago!”
Today we remember the first landing on the moon–45 years ago now. The countdown to the 50th Golden Anniversary is just 5 years away–2019.
But on March 16, 1989–25 years ago–I was fortunate and happy to speak with Neil Armstrong on that antique device, the corded telephone, about Arthur C. Clarke–and Neil Armstrong.