Neil McAleer is probably best known in these pages for his fine biography Visionary: The Odyssey of Arthur C. Clarke (Clarke Project, 2012), but this is just one of his titles. In fact, his book The Omni Space Almanac won the 1988 Robert S. Ball Award from the Aviation and Space Writers Association, and his work has appeared in magazines from Discover to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space and in many newspapers. A recent note from Neil reminded me that August 25th marked one year since the death of Neil Armstrong. This reminiscence of the astronaut brings Armstrong wonderfully to mind and gives us a bit more of Clarke, leaving me to wonder only how time has gone by so quickly in the days since the death of both men. McAleer’s article also gives me a chance to pause in Starship Congress coverage as I begin to collect papers from many of the presenters, the first of which we’ll be looking at a bit later this week.
by Neil McAleer
From the great deep to the great deep he goes.
— Alfred Lord Tennyson
The first letter I ever received from Neil A. Armstrong was dated May 21, 1987. Earlier that month, I had sent his office a copy of my recently published The OMNI Space Almanac with the hope he would agree to read and verify its text covering the final descent and landing on the moon of the Apollo 11 mission.
I had no clue if he would respond to my request or not, but it was worth a try. When I saw Lebanon, Ohio, on his return address a few weeks later, I was thrilled to have his reply — whatever it said. He thanked me for the book and wrote:
“I have been overwhelmed with business obligations this past several months, and have not yet had the chance to read it carefully.
“I will give my comments when the pressure subsides.”
Of course, I was all but certain that his pressure would never subside, but I was very grateful for his words.
That letter was my bonding with Armstrong for life, and it began a small friendship that lasted over 21 years and was sustained through occasional letters, emails, and phone conversations, several of which were interviews for my various works in progress.
Five months after receiving that special letter, in October 1987, I published a piece in Space World, “The Space Age Turns 30,” for which I interviewed 26 astronauts, science fiction and science writers, and various other space experts, asking them where they were when Sputnik 1 was launched — the event that would forever mark the beginning of planet Earth’s space age. Among the astronauts I interviewed for this piece were all three Apollo 11 crew members: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.
Here is the published text that was distilled from the Armstrong interview that took place in the summer months of 1987.
“You know, going back 25 years or more and trying to remember something accurately is dangerous. I think many people remember what they remember rather than what happened.
“My recollection is that I was at the Society of Experimental Test Pilots symposium at Los Angeles at the time. The SETP symposium is always in the fall, about the time of the World Series. And I believe that to be true because I remember that it caused the Society some consternation at its inability to get press coverage, when every journalist was concentrating on Sputnik.
“I was flying various projects at Edwards Air Force Base at the time, including the X-15. [Its first flight took place post-Sputnik, in June 1959.] Those of us at Edwards High Speed Flight Station were working on projects we thought might lead eventually to spaceflight, so I’m certain that Sputnik was of extreme interest and concern to all of us in that business. What it came down to was: The Russians had one and we didn’t. We got one and then went on to the Moon.”
Those last two short sentences let us into the mind and heart Armstrong — the core of the man — as few short phrases can: Cut to the essence; cut to the action; take over the manual controls to land successfully on the moon! It demonstrates the truth of the succinct phrase describing him in his high school yearbook: “He thinks, he acts,’tis done.”
Image: Neil Armstrong as I (PG) like to remember him, a laser-focused professional at the top of his game.
Neil and I had two more informal project interviews, with follow-up correspondence, for works in process. One interview took place on March 16, 1989, which was part of my research for my first Arthur C. Clarke biography, originally published in 1992. The second focused on Neil Armstrong himself, a 1994 piece in the Baltimore Sun (“Neil Armstrong, Reluctant Hero”) that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, and the exemplary character of its commander, Neil A. Armstrong.
This piece was primarily my research, but I sent a draft to Neil and followed up with a phone call. My intent here was to make sure there were no egregious or even minor errors, which I knew he would tell me about if they appeared. Armstrong’s reach for excellence was ever-present.
My memory tells me that the last phone conversation/interview we had was for this Baltimore Sun piece in the spring of 1994, but there were a few email exchanges during the rest of the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century.
I was completely unaware of the last letter from Neil Armstrong that I played a part in. It wasn’t until I visited Arthur Clarke at his home in Colombo Sri Lanka, for the first time in April-May 2004 that I learned about it and read the original there.
Before my trip I wrote Neil to tell him I was making the long voyage over. It would be the first and last time I saw Arthur Clarke in his native habitat, where he chose to live in the 1950s. I was seeking a few special “gifts” to bring Arthur. Neil had said this about Clarke in a speech at the National Press Club in February of 2000:
“For three decades I have enjoyed the work and friendship of Arthur Clarke, a prolific science and science fiction writer, who back in 1945 first suggested the possibility of the communications satellite. In addition to writing some wonderful books, he has also proposed a few memorable laws. Clarke’s third law seems particularly apt today: Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly, it has been a magical century.”
My letter to Neil, dated April 10, 2004, read in part: “I’m taking a brand spanking ‘new’ copy of ‘The Engineered Century’ piece from The Bridge* in Spring 2000 to Sri Lanka with me to give to Arthur as a gift… Would it be possible for you to sign and date a copy to him on the first page of your piece?” (This was after Neil Armstrong had put a moratorium on requests for his signatures. “Unless I sign the wet concrete of a building cornerstone, and it can’t be carried away,” he told me once.)
* A quarterly magazine, issued by the National Academy of Engineers. This article was an edited version of a speech Armstrong delivered at the National Press Club, 22 February 2000.
Neil’s answer came back the next day: “I will be happy to help out as you have suggested. I will mail the book directly to Arthur to save you the trouble of carting it to Sri Lanka.”
After arriving at Clarke’s home and office in Colombo in late April, I asked Arthur if a package had arrived from Neil Armstrong. “Yes,” he said. “The inscribed Bridge and a letter.”
The letter was a complete surprise to me—and much more significant than an accompanying note.
It was the best letter written by Neil Armstrong that I had ever seen because it was a personal one to Clarke, who at 87 years was having multiple medical issues, including memory loss. And Armstrong’s humor and personality came through clearly in his words.
So two gifts had been sent to Arthur by Neil Armstrong: the inscribed magazine that was a cooperative initiative between the two of us; and his wonderful letter to Arthur—now in the Clarke archives. A photograph of that letter is below.
And here is Neil’s article with inscription to Clarke:
There was a brief email exchange between us in mid-October 2005. I happened to see an obituary in the New York Times of a fellow test pilot that he may have missed, so I forwarded it on. I first sent this with a brief personal note attached to his office via the NY Times email forward, but apparently it never arrived. So I sent it again, “in a more straightforward manner,” and he replied a few days later:
“Thank you for the obit on George Watkins. Although I get the Times, I did not see the article. I didn’t know George well, but he came to Edwards on a number of occasions when I was working there.”
The fact that he replied at all to such an off-the-cuff brief forward was indicative of Neil’s warmth and generosity. But I was especially happy about the consistent use of abbreviated greetings and signature closings that framed this round of emails: I had headed mine: Neil A. from Neil M., and he replied with: Neil M. from Neil A. He accepted the usage. And he kept his message short: “‘Tis done.”
Our last emails were sent during 2008, the year that Arthur C. Clarke died at the age of 90 (March 19). Several months later, not long after Neil celebrated his 78th birthday on August 5, I brought him up to date and sent him a link to the last professional photographs of Clarke taken shortly before he died. That was our final communication—some 21 years after I received Neil’s first letter.
I never met Neil Armstrong face to face, but I knew him through his own words and voice, and our small friendship was life-changing for me. In the 1980s, our occasional interactions renewed and invigorated my natural propensity for optimism that had slowly gone into hibernation during my forties.
I’ve always thought of Neil when looking at the moon—ever since he and Buzz and Mike flew there and back, not quite a half century ago. Like countless admirers around the planet, I too grieved last August, reluctant to give up the hope that he had many more good years left. I genuinely thought Neil would be with us for the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019—and I take great comfort in the fact that his life story and giant spirit will always be with us.