If a connection between accounting and astronautics seems tenuous, it’s one that Neil Armstrong invoked on the 24th of August, 2011, when he spoke before CPA Australia in Sydney, doubtless motivated by his father’s career as an auditor. Armstrong stopped signing autographs in 1996 and rarely spoke in public, but accepted the Sydney invitation, according to members of the audience, because of his declared ‘soft spot’ for accounting. While no video was allowed during the speech, author Neil McAleer has had access to an audio recording, though one of uneven quality. What follows is an excerpt from a longer project on the Moon landing that McAleer is working on, within which he adds commentary to the parts of the speech he was able to transcribe. Armstrong’s words throughout are in quotes, with McAleer’s additions in standard text. The first man on the Moon would die almost exactly one year after giving this speech.
“I am truly delighted to be here today and I thank you for the wonderful offer. And I thank the CPA for giving me an opportunity to play a part in this 125 anniversary gathering of your industry. . . .
“You might ask me, ‘how does it feel to be the oldest person in the room?’ [laughter] “Well, I ’m not thrilled about it, but I am encouraged by old timers who did great things as senior citizens.
“Galileo invented one of his greatest discoveries at the age of 73. Edison was still inventing in his 80s. Toscanini was still conducting at 87. Titian, the famous Italian artist, painted the great battle of Lepanto at the age of 85.
“So, if there’s a need to find someone to command a starship for a tour around the Solar System, I am available. [Laughter and Applause]
“And if there’s anyone here tonight who is more senior than me, I apologize and congratulate you!”
Image: Neil Armstrong speaking in Australia. Credit: Alan Kerlin.
Armstrong next talked about his father Stephen’s vocation, employed by the state of Ohio “to audit the books of its various county governments.” It involved a great deal of travel throughout the state.
“As a consequence of his job, he encountered the occasional embezzler, and eventually acquired the nickname of ‘Suicide Steve’.
“My father was a numbers guy and took great pride in his mastery of numerical precision. I shared this aptitude and affection for mathematics, which strongly influenced my educational career track toward engineering. Both careers are highly dependent on precision mathematics.”
An aptitude for math was certainly useful for a young boy who got his pilot’s license at age 16, who ultimately went on to serve as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, then a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, and then astronaut and commander of the first landing on the Moon—Apollo 11.
But throughout his life, Armstrong would always emphasize a personality trait that he believed was even more important than the technical skills needed in various professions. He quoted Calvin Coolidge.
“‘Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence: Talent will not; . . . Genius will not; . . . Education will not . . . Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. Think about actress Elizabeth Taylor, for example. She was highly determined over many years in her search for the perfect husband.”
Neil’s next anecdote was a brief summary of a crisis between an accountant and his wife.
“A chief financial officer . . . is meeting with his accounting team for the purpose of finalizing and releasing their annual financial report. It is scheduled for a Saturday morning. The accountant’s wife has planned a special family luncheon to meet their daughter’s fiancé and his parents for a celebratory and get-acquainted lunch. ‘You must be home by 1:00 o’clock,’ ” his wife insisted.
“Well, what often happens, the annual meeting went on all morning and into the afternoon—the schedule had suffered because of some urgent issues that had to be addressed and resolved. The accountant got home very late —not just a little bit but a lot. The luncheon was long over and the guests had already left.
“His wife was more than distraught. She was crying! ‘I just can’t believe you,’ she sobbed. ‘You love accountants more than you love me!’
“The accountant didn’t know how to respond, but finally he replied: ‘I love you more than I love lawyers!’”
A story about domestic strife between an accountant and his wife moves to Armstrong’s thoughts of risk.
“Risk is a part of all our lives. There is no planned spaceflight mission that doesn’t carry potential risk. There is little progress without risk. In spaceflight we are genuinely dealing with the realities of risk. And increasingly today the popular business management curriculum has adopted risk management courses.
“Take as an example choosing the trajectory to travel from earth to the Moon . . . NASA selected a very particular route called ‘the free return trajectory.’ . . .”
This trajectory is one of the many decisions /actions taken by NASA to protect all its Apollo missions to the Moon from disaster, including the survival of the crippled Apollo 13 mission and the return of the crew safely to Earth. It was probably the most important safety feature of the entire Apollo Moon program—a pre-planned backup, save-the-mission strategy.
Although it never happened during an Apollo mission, if the programmed rockets didn’t fire or fired in error for the lunar orbit insertion maneuver (which had to succeed for a Moon-landing mission), the free return trajectory would use just the right amount of the Moon’s gravity to return the Apollo spacecraft safely to earth —avoiding an otherwise eternal voyage into the cosmos.
It is important to note that the explosion of the oxygen tank in the command module Odyssey (Apollo 13) occurred during one of the most benign parts of the mission as compared to the lunar orbit insertion rocket ignition. Had it happened then, or at other crucial times in the flight, the outcome could have been the loss of the spaceship and crew.
In reality, however, the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft still needed a trajectory correction because of the impact of the oxygen tank explosion and other factors. This would insure the gravity of the Moon would successfully and accurately execute the free return trajectory. How would the maneuver be made? The creative answer from the crew and NASA experts back on earth was to use the fuel and engine of the undamaged (and unused!) Lunar Module, Aquarius, to correct the free return trajectory. This was the crew’s survival ticket back to earth.
Many people asked why NASA named their ill-fated April 1970 mission Apollo 13, said Armstrong. “After all, the number 13 is considered an unlucky number in much of the world. NASA answered that as an agency they are not superstitious but scientific and rational in all their program decisions.
“Nevertheless, NASA still says they are scientific, but they never did use the number 13 again to designate another spacecraft mission.” [Laughter]
Associated with the risk in our daily lives is the phrase ‘better than,’ and the common human motivation to lower risk and stress, raise our goals, and live a better, more productive and happy life. Armstrong spoke to his ‘down under’ audience about this.
“We are all trying to be better than last year. Every sports team wants to be better than other teams in the league–better than our competition. Our young President Kennedy didn’t just want to catch up with the Russians; he wanted us to be better than the Russians. That was the beginning of the space race to the Moon. ‘Better than’ is an important part of our lives—the essence of competition, the essence of progress.”
About this time in Armstrong’s speech, he returns to the flight of Apollo 11, and describes leaving our home planet for the first time. The crew is in orbit above the Earth, waiting for the engine burn that will take them to escape velocity, deliver them to the Moon and change human history. He tells a personal story, at times including dramatic imagery, starting with the ignition of the 3rd stage engine of the Saturn V, which will send them “more than 10 times the speed of a flying bullet” toward their destination.
“If you increase your speed from your orbital velocity by just 41%, you will reach escape velocity,” and without other thrust corrections (most critically the lunar orbit insertion) you could be ‘lost in space,’ forever. “In our business it’s a handy fact to keep around.” [Laughter]
“Imagine you are in your spacecraft in orbit around the earth [on the nightside] and you are looking down at a few lights on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, some 1,600 kilometers off the coast of Africa, where lightning storms are active and illuminating thunderheads. You also see village lights and a few shooting stars.
“You must soon ignite the 3rd stage engine of your Saturn V, at a very precise time—within a fraction of a second. You enter some data into the computer which arms the rocket engine. Ignition occurs over the Indian Ocean. You feel the engine come to life; you feel the strong push of gravity in your back. You’re moving outward from earth.
“In earth orbit you were going 27,362 kilometers per hour and now you are in the process of increasing your speed by 11,493.3 kilometers per hour to reach escape velocity.
“You are still on the nightside of earth. In the dark you just can’t see anything–no visual confirmation. Soon you see a sliver of light marking the dawn—a flight back into sunlight. The engine stops; you are floating again. You’re moving outward from earth, but you seem to be motionless. In a half minute you are flooded with sunlight.
”The countries of earth are dropping away from you— you see Malaysia and Indonesia below, Australia off to the right, Japan off to the left. The horizon is growing. All of a sudden you can see the entire circle of old planet earth.
“A gigantic blue medicine ball, covered with white lacy clouds, is exploding slowly away from you into the vacant black sky [out the window above].
“This is the time you say to yourself, “Ah oh!—Maybe you should have taken the CPA route in life.” [audience laughter]
The long voyage to the Moon is now ahead for the Apollo 11 crew. Sometimes it feels like there’s just too much conversation from the ground controllers.
“Every couple of minutes we’d hear, ‘Hello Apollo, this is Houston’ or ‘Hello 11, this is Houston’.
“I don’t know why they say that. Who else is in the area?
“It was nice to hear their voices, of course, and hearing their expert advice, which was available when we needed it. It was teamwork, cooperation. All of you know about teamwork. It is essential for all of us.”
Armstrong’s speech then flashed back to June 1969, a few weeks before the launch of Apollo 11. He was setting the scene for his out-of-the world narrative and the climax to his story of Apollo 11, when its engine was silent and Eagle touched down on the Moon’s surface.
“A month before the launch of Apollo 11, we decided we were confident enough we could try an attempt on a descent to the surface,” said Armstrong. “I thought we had a 90% chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight but only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on that first attempt. There are so many unknowns on that descent from lunar orbit down to the surface that had not been demonstrated yet by testing and there was a big chance that there was something in there we didn’t understand properly and we had to abort and come back to Earth without landing.”
As Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface in the Lunar Module Eagle, their on-board computer was indicating they would land on the side of a large crater, with steep slopes and large boulders that would put them at serious risk.
“Not a good place to land at all,” Neil said. “I took it over manually and flew it like a helicopter out to the west direction, took it to a smoother area without so many rocks and found a level area and was able to get it down there before we ran out of fuel. There was something like 20 seconds of fuel left.”
It was now time for Armstrong to present the denouement of his, and the world’s, Moon drama, from the perspective of 42 years, to his Australian audience, which included an enthusiastic group of still active Aussie ‘space cadets’ who had tracked and gathered, and passed on data to Houston during the mission in July 1969, and the other Apollo missions to follow.
His story would be enhanced with 21st century technical breakthroughs. The most dramatic was a robotic spacecraft named the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), launched to orbit the Moon in June 2008 and carrying the latest advances in space imagery. The high-resolution cameras focused on visually mapping the entire surface of the Moon, with the exception of shadow areas always in darkness. And naturally, the landing sites of all Apollo missions would merit special emphasis and scrutiny. Google Moon would also provide its expertise in map-making and scanning techniques integrated with LRO’s superb data. Google’s images were oblique, not vertical like those produced by LRO.
All this 21st century technology would feature in the last minutes of Armstrong’s discussion of the Eagle landing on the Moon. And Neil’s audience would be the first to see it—after a group of experts processed and juxtaposed 1969 and 2011 images for a one-of-a-kind video.
“I became aware of this remarkable video imagery because of an Australian friend,” Armstrong said, “and the original alumni Australian tracking team who participated in the early tracking Apollo missions work in the 1960s. They have been working hard to upgrade the data and imagery captured from the Moon landing. This has become a valuable interpretation of this [early] space age material.”
Later, toward the end of his speech, Armstrong took the time to recognize and thank all those original alumni of the tracking team who were in the audience.
“No one has ever seen what you are going to see tonight. Getting this short new video allows me to again see the landing approach [with new technology]. A short 3 minute film clip available for your premier showing– and it might not work at all!
“In the left screen you will see the 1969 film from the Eagle’s cockpit, looking out the window. Compare craters in the left images of 42 years ago, with the right view taken in the last few years. In the background [1969 audio] the crew is talking, and also mission control. The computer tells us it’s taking us down to a landing just on the right side of that big crater, certainly not a place I would like to land.”
[PG: The video above is the closest I can come to what Armstrong would have used in Australia.]
Armstrong narrates the action in the enhanced video: “Everything looks good. It’s a go, says mission control at 100 meters above the surface. I’m looking down in this 30- meter crater below–looking for a smooth area away from this crater with large boulders. [He has less than 2 minutes of fuel left at this point.] Fifty meters above the surface—still looking good. Engine is starting to kick up some dust from the surface on left view. There you see the shadow of my landing leg coming down on the surface. We are very close to the surface right now.” [The famous soundtrack from 1969 is heard.]
Aldrin: Okay – engine stop.
Mission Control: We copy you down, Eagle.
Armstrong: Tranquility Base here – the Eagle has landed. [A crescendo of applause from the audience]
“With this picture on the right, you see the landing stage—from LRO imagery, a vertical shot of our landing spot – you see the landing part of Eagle –what was also the launch pad for the return to Moon orbit and rendezvous with Columbia.
“And 2 years ago [in 2009] NASA approved and began the restoration of the hard drives from the lunar landings—with the substantial involvement of the tracking station experts in Australia” [and elsewhere].
“Our understanding of the Moon, our nearest cosmic neighbor, has multiplied a thousand fold after the flights of Apollo in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Image: This photograph of astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, was taken inside the Lunar Module (LM) while the LM rested on the lunar surface. Astronauts Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, had already completed their historic extravehicular activity (EVA) when this picture was made. Astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin explored the Moon’s surface. Credit: NASA.
“We believe our goal was a worthy goal. Connected with our two-word phrase ‘better than’ – the first tenet is quality and that applies to this 21 century, when we can be exceeding the results of the 20th century. Above all else is the quality of the people–in any organization the quality of its people is paramount. There is nothing more important than the quality of your teammates.
“Another tenet of ‘better than’ is leadership . . . The effective leader must be able to adapt to changing conditions.
“Sixty-seven years ago, during the second Great War, a flyer disappeared in his P-38 reconnaissance plane over the Mediterranean. The flyer was better known for his writing than his flying. He was the author of The Little Prince, Wind, Sand and Stars, and Night Flight. His name was Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A definition of leadership was captured in his novel, The Wisdom of the Sands:
“‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’
“I was fortunate enough to be led by men who made me yearn for the vast and endless sea above the surface of the earth, and I am in their debt, and I am in your debt for allowing me to be with you today and for giving me a most valuable gift—your time. And I thank you very much.”
End of August 24, 2011 Speech in Sydney, Australia.
Over time Neil Armstrong evolved his speaking techniques and used more humor in his presentations, sometimes doing vocal imitations of the characters in his stories. Several times he imitated a Scottish accent—once when he was accepting an award in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In another story that fellow astronaut Jim Lovell enjoyed telling, Armstrong told the tale of two experimental mice who were in the final countdown to the launch of their suborbital flight. They were flying in a salvaged WWII V-2 rocket at the White Sands Rocket Range in New Mexico during the early days of life-in-space studies. Armstrong mimicked the high-pitched voices of the mice astronauts, strapped to their cockpit chairs and discussing the life-threatening dangers (explosions, parachutes not opening) they would soon face.
“I’m scared,” one said to the other. “Our rocket could explode at any time!”
The other mouse answered, “I still think it’s better than cancer research!”
In his speeches, Neil’s timing evolved and his attitude about speaking events became more positive. Space historian John M. Logsdon recognized this change and described it in his memorial tribute “A True Pioneer of the Science and Art of Flight,” shortly after Armstrong’s death in late August 2012:
“Although he was never comfortable with his status as an icon because of Apollo 11, as he got older he accepted that reality and came to enjoy sharing his experience of flying to a landing on the Moon with all who would listen.”