Our dad oh, He walked the moon

On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Rick and his brother Mark, are auctioning about 3,000 belongings of Neil Armstrong

DALLAS: In the summer of 1969, Rick Armstrong was 12 and whacking the baseball in the Houston-area Little League.

He was selected to play in the all-star game — but he had to skip it, because he was at Cape Canaveral in Florida to watch his father, Neil A. Armstrong, blast off to the moon.

“I wasn’t happy about that,” said Rick, now 61.

As the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 approaches, Rick and his brother Mark, 55, are auctioning about 3,000 belongings of their father, who died in 2012. In the process, they are revisiting their childhoods and the enduring legacy of their father as the first person to walk on the moon.

“I intellectually get it,” Rick said. “But internally I’m not sure I will ever get it. It’s sort of just my dad.”

The items to be auctioned include flags, medallions, stamped envelopes and other memorabilia that made the trip to the moon and back when the Apollo 11 lunar lander set down on July 20, 1969. Others come from earlier years, like a letter that Neil Armstrong wrote as a boy to the Easter bunny.

Most of the material had been sitting in basements and storage lockers for decades. “We felt like we should embark on the process of making sure we keep things in good condition and where possible conserve them,” Mark said.

They could have donated everything to a museum or a university, but then items might have sat in boxes. In an auction, each item is researched so that buyers know what they are buying. Photographs of every item will remain online.

“That means that item’s history is preserved for anyone to see and for research later on,” Mark said.

The first batch of about 800 items will be sold on Nov. 1 and 2 in Dallas. As a preview, some will be on exhibit through Friday at Heritage Auctions in Manhattan.

While many Nasa astronauts have auctioned off items decades ago, “Neil Armstrong never did that,” said Michael Riley, director of the space exploration department at Heritage Auctions. “Nobody ever realised what he had, what he kept, whether he kept anything.”

Mark admitted it was not an easy decision to sell his father’s belongings. “It’s something we struggled with,” he said. “Would Dad approve? Let’s see what positive things we can do with the proceeds.”

Even though astronauts were national celebrities in the 1960s, Rick recalled his life was “just normal growing up in the suburbs. It did not seem particularly extraordinary or anything.”

Their mother, Janet Armstrong, taught synchronised swimming. They would have dinner usually at the same time every evening. Sometimes their father would get home on time. Sometimes he was away for Nasa business. There was always an emphasis on doing well in school.

For the occasional family vacations, they flew to Acapulco, Mexico, in a small private plane they co-owned. “He’d fly it,” Mark recalled. “Mom would sit in the co-pilot’s seat, and we’d sit in the back. Usually with an empty bottle or two that we could pee in.”

For Apollo 11, the media attention increased. That included a writer for Life magazine following the Armstrong family for a few months.

During a mission, the astronauts’ homes were perpetual open houses with people coming and going. Each home was equipped with “squawk boxes” that broadcast the goings-on in mission control.

On July 20, 1969, “There were more people in the house that day than the previous days,” said Mark, who was 6 then. He remembered that his father and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon late in the afternoon.

“I had something to eat, and it got to be 9 o’clock or so,” he said, adding that he then went to bed. His mother woke him to watch the moon walk on the 26-inch television in the living room.

Rick, who at 12 was allowed to stay up the whole time, said, “I think that was as big a TV as you could get back then.”

The most famous flag on Apollo 11 was the one that Neil Armstrong planted on the surface of the moon.

But the astronauts also took many smaller flags, part of a multitude of memorabilia packed for the trip. (There was also a Purdue flag, for Neil Armstrong’s alma mater, and a UN flag.) In the November auction, one of those American flags, a silk one measuring 17 3/4 by 11 1/2 inches, is expected to draw the highest bids, perhaps selling for $300,000 or more.

Perhaps the most unusual artefacts that went to the moon and remained in Neil Armstrong’s possession were parts of the original Wright brothers’ aeroplane that made the first powered flight in 1903. Armstrong was able keep some of pieces of fabric from the plane’s wing and wood from its propeller. Those are in the auction, too.

The sons eventually followed their own paths. Mark became a software developer. Rick studied marine biology and became an animal trainer before shifting gears and joining his brother at a software start-up.

“I think a lot of times, the son wants to outdo the father,” Rick said. “I pretty much learnt quickly that that wasn’t going to be something I needed to worry about. First man on Mars would probably be the only chance I would have, and that was not a realistic career goal. I was able to let go of that issue pretty early on, and I don’t feel that ever bothered me.”

In later years, Neil Armstrong largely withdrew from public life, but they dispute perceptions of him as a recluse. “He was a funny guy,” Rick said.

Mark recalled being at a talk that his father was giving at the Sydney Opera House around 1977. Neil Armstrong, the program said, did not exercise because he thought everyone has a set number of heartbeats and he did not want to waste any — something he had said, most likely in jest, in 1969 to Life magazine.

Mark said his father walked onstage and said, “Before I get started, I want to clear one thing up.” Armstrong took off his jacket, dropped to do about 20 push-ups, got up, put his jacket on and began his talk.

“I was more proud of him after those push-ups than after he went to the moon,” Mark said.


First mission a failure

Neil Armstrong’s first space mission, Gemini 8, almost ended in disaster. It was the first time American astronauts successfully docked with another spacecraft in orbit. But one of the thrusters aboard Gemini 8 malfunctioned, and the spacecraft spun faster and faster.

With the astronauts on the verge of losing consciousness, he shut off the thrusters and slowed the spin with the backup system. Only years later did Rick and Mark learn how close their father was to dying that day.

“We didn’t understand the risk,” Rick said. “We didn’t understand the complexity of what they were trying to do.”

The astronauts, of course, understood the dangers, and life insurance was unaffordable or unavailable for astronauts. That led to “insurance covers” for each mission.

Before launch, the astronauts autographed commemorative envelopes that remained on Earth — a financial safety net for their families to sell if tragedy befell them in space.

Mark said: “We were sheltered. We were never worried about whether Dad would come back or not. He was just on a flight. It might as well have been an aeroplane, a business trip. A business trip to the moon. It really was like that.”


Journey back home.

After splashing down in the Pacific, the astronauts spent several weeks in quarantine, to make sure that they had not brought back anything dangerous from the moon. (They even had to sign a customs form. Under a heading where “any other condition on board that may lead to the spread of disease” was to be listed, Nasa helpfully provided an answer: “To be determined.”)

The quarantine facility — a modified camper — was flown in a C-141 cargo plane to Houston, where Mark and Rick could go see their father. Rick said he did not remember him talking much about the moon. “It was more: What had we been doing? ‘Are you helping your mom? Are you mowing the grass?’” he said. “All that kind of stuff.”

Rick said the attention to the family became “pretty overwhelming.” They moved to Bethesda, Maryland, after Neil Armstrong took a leadership role at Nasa headquarters. Then the family moved to Ohio, Neil Armstrong’s home state, where he became a professor at the University of Cincinnati. They bought a farm where they could get a measure of privacy.

But being the first man on the moon apparently was not enough to qualify for a Diners Club credit card. Neil Armstrong applied in 1974 and was rejected.

— New York Times News Service


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