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THE GOLD SHEET'S SPECIAL TRIBUTE... RIP, NEIL ARMSTRONG
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


While doing some research on Friday for the weekend’s NFL preseason games, and the upcoming Texans vs. Saints battle, we spent a few moments tracing the history of Houston and New Orleans in exhibition play. Of course, in pro football terms, Houston meant the Oilers through 1996, and not the Texans, who didn’t arrive on the scene until 2002. The connection between the cities was a natural, not only because of their close proximity, but also because original Saints owner John Mecom, Jr. was a Houston native.

The old Oilers and the expansion Saints used to meet in preseason during the AFL-NFL war years, facing off in 1968-69. The initial New Orleans-Houston meeting took place at the Astrodome on August 18, 1968, when the Oilers rallied from a 23-7 deficit entering the 4th Q to post a 24-23 win. Future HOF DB Ken Houston began the comeback when he took back a Bill Kilmer interception 39 yards for a TD. In the ‘68 interleague portion of the preseason, teams were required to pass or run (and not kick) the PATs, and QB Pete Beathard hit WR Mac Haik for the conversion to cut the score to 23-14. A John Wittenborn field goal cut the deficit to 23-17 before Beathard engineered a last-minute TD drive, culminated by his 6-yard scramble TD with 56 seconds to play. Oiler RB Sid Blanks then swept around right end for the conversion and a 24-23 Houston win.

The Oilers had less trouble the following year at old Tulane Stadium, beating the Saints 30-14 on September 6, 1969. Houston’s defense set up three scores, including a 37-yard interception TD by DB Miller Farr, while SMU rookie Jerry Levias returned a punt 76 yards for a score. Oilers rookie PK Roy Gerela also kicked three field goals. The crowd of 76,932 was the largest ever for a preseason Saints game and gave a rousing halftime welcome to astronaut Michael Collins, in attendance after serving as captain of the command module Columbia on the recently-completed Apollo 11 moon voyage.

We mention Collins because we spent a few moments on Friday accessing some info from the Apollo 11 mission, which we recall clearly. Including looking up Collins’ fellow crew members Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, who would descend to the moon in the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) while Collins orbited overhead, to rendezvous with them the next day. Indeed, Collins might have been one of the few people in 1969 who didn’t watch the moon walks of Armstrong and Aldrin on live TV.

Forgive us, first, for relating all of this info, which seems misplaced in a sports venue. Not really, however; if you enjoy reading the passages regarding football and basketball on these pages, then you’re obliged to allow us to veer off course once in a while when we deem it appropriate.

Imagine, then, the extra shock we felt when hearing of Armstrong’s passing the following day. It had been a few years since we last heard of Armstrong’s name in the news; we could hardly believe the word of his demise would come just a few hours after we spent time doing some recollecting of his great achievement as the first man to walk on the moon.

As the decades pass along, we feel fortunate to have been around in the ‘60s and recall the days of the great space race, which was a huge news item in those times. Hard as it might be to imagine today, but there was a time when astronauts were at least equal to, and in some cases bigger celebrities, than sports stars of the era. In the pre-ESPN age of the 1960s, when more national media coverage was allotted to traditional news, NASA was a very big deal, and so were astronauts.

But that was all a long time ago, and nowadays about the only places where we can recall the glory days of NASA are at the Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers in Florida and Texas, respectively. We have made a handful of trips to the former at Cape Canaveral and were there again this past spring in what, at least for the over-50 crowd, amounts to quite a trip down memory lane. And one of the few places where Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, and Apollo 11 remain part of the modern-day narrative.

And, for a while at least, there might not have been a bigger worldwide celebrity than Armstrong, especially during the summer of 1969. Upon the safe return of Apollo 11, the nation and the world couldn’t wait to fete the crew, and even President Nixon would journey to the USS Hornet to greet the astronauts upon their recovery from splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Another dignitary on board was Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., father of then-imprisoned Navy pilot and future US Senator John McCain.

President Nixon, however, couldn’t get too close, as the astronauts were transported into a mobile quarantine trailer, where they would remain for a couple of weeks while any threats of contamination from the lunar encounter could be eradicated. This procedure would eventually be scrubbed on later lunar missions when none of the early Apollo moon crews contracted anything resembling disease from their journeys.

(We recently saw that very same quarantine trailer, by the way, when visiting the new Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Aerospece Museum nearby Dulles Airport in Virginia in May.)

While in quarantine, the news cycle of the day quickly shifted to Sen. Ted Kennedy and his fatal auto accident involving Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island, but soon the attention was focused back to the astronauts.

A few weeks later, the crew was released from quarantine, and on a wondrous Monday, August 11, 1969, would be honored as no heroes had ever been, first with a ticker-tape parade in New York, the same a few hours later after a flight to Chicago, and, that evening, after flying to the West Coast, a gala dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. All of the events breathlessly carried by the major network news outlets of CBS, NBC, and ABC. All day long. Subsequently, the crew made a 22-nation tour.

Herein, however, lies one of the morals of the tale of Armstrong and Apollo 11. While many believed Armstrong was a dead-bang certainty to capitalize upon his celebrity and strike it rich with endorsements and other deals befitting a national hero, the Apollo 11 commander instead decided to fly well beneath the radar, shunning commercialization and opting for a more peaceful, quiet life out of the mainstream.

Imagine modern-day celebrities of similar magnitude doing the same?

Instead of doing TV commercials and endorsing varieties of consumer brands, Armstrong instead took a job with NASA as a deputy associate administrator for aeronautics, then the following year accepted a position as a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Thus, Armstrong mostly stayed out of public view for the rest of his life, except for occasional astronaut reunions and ceremonial obligations related to NASA and the space program. Armstrong would also eventually serve as chairman of a pair of electronics companies while living quietly on his farm in Lebanon, Ohio.

All along the way, Armstrong never deviated from his persona. He even embraced his nerdiness. “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket professor, nerdy engineer,” Armstrong said during a rare interview in 2000. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”

Ever modest and shunning the limelight, Armstrong could never escape from his place in history, even though he became more of a footnote as the decades would pass. Generations X and Y would only relate to Armstrong from history books, and even then to only those who would pay attention to what they were studying.

Too many these days, we suspect, idolize false heroes, and never bother to recall what true heroism was represented by those early astronauts which included Armstrong. Most of the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crew members (Armstrong among them), were surviving military test pilots, a profession as dangerous as any. Armstrong, a test pilot for the X-15, was also one of many astronauts who flew combat missions in war, in his case 78 times for the Navy in Korea. Although by the time he was picked to command Apollo 11, he was one of the few civilians in the astronaut corps.

Not only did Armstrong fly those 78 combat missions in Korea, but he was among the second group of astronauts hired by NASA in 1962. His first space flight was a memorable ride in Gemini XIII alongside fellow future moonwalker David Scott, the first flight in which in-space docking procedures (with the Agena rocket target vehicle) were successfully completed. Although not without its harrowing moments, as the Agena began to act up and caused the Gemini capsule to begin a hard-to-control roll, forcing a quick undocking but not stopping the roll. With the roll beginning to accelerate and threatening to become violent and likely to cause unconsciousness and disaster for the crew, Armstrong quickly shut down the Orbit Attitude and Maneuvering System (OAMS) and began manual controls using the Re-entry Control System to stabilize the aircraft.

An emergency landing was now required, one that necessitated Armstrong to steer the tiny capsule through re-entry into a secondary landing area in the South Pacific, not the Atlantic Ocean as originally planned. Cool as a cucumber, Armstrong completed the flight without incident.

Armstrong was also at the controls when making a test flight with an early version of the LEM at the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center when the vehicle lost control, with Armstrong ejecting himself just in time before the spacecraft crashed. Three such mishaps with different pilots occurred in the mid ‘60s before the LEM was further perfected in time for space flight later in the decade.

The general public also had no idea how harrowing was the descent of the “Eagle” lunar module to the moon’s surface that memorable July 20, 1969. Little known to the TV audience watching Mission Control with rapt attention that Sunday afternoon, Armstrong was having trouble finding smooth terrain suitable for landing on the Sea of Tranquility and was quickly running out of fuel in the descent engine. Having already passed the stage at which an abort was possible, Armstrong was now into "dead man's curve," pilot lingo for no place to turn around. It was land, successfully, or else, and time was running out.

With less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining, Armstrong finally found a proper landing place and gently set down the Eagle before uttering the famous words “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

At the time, TV viewers would hear Mission Control respond, “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys here about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” Only years later did the public find out what those fellows on the ground in Houston were so worried about.

With several friends and relatives in the close-knit aerospace community, we had an opportunity in later years to find out just how harrowing that descent was into Tranquility Base. Remarkably, no one who was watching on TV at that time could tell from Armstrong’s calm demeanor.

Talk about pressure! With man’s greatest scientific achievement about to turn into an unthinkable disaster that could have had a terrible impact upon society and the nation in general, Neil Armstrong stayed cool. A little bit different than a golfer sinking a putt or a place-kicker nailing a late field goal, we would say.

And the stuff of which real heroes are made.

A few years ago, we were in West Lafayette, Indiana, and strolling around the campus of Purdue University, Armstrong’s alma mater, when we came across a statue that honored him. A fitting tribute, to be sure, and one that moved us, from having been able to recall July 20, 1969.

We were glad that Purdue, where Armstrong earned his undergrad degree in aeronautical engineering, saw fit to honor him. Armstrong also earned a masters in aerospace engineering from Southern Cal.

Yet we find it quite regrettable that more USC alums spend time boasting about their football team and past Heisman winners such as Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush than they do Armstrong.

Modern sports and culture provide a great contrast to Armstrong, who along with many other unassuming heroes (including several space explorers) are unfortunately overlooked by the present-day world that puts greater emphasis on the inane dimensions of an invention such as Twitter, and places sorts such as spoiled brat actors and actresses, punkish sports personalities such as Chad Ochocinco Johnson, music stars, gangsta rappers, and do-nothing Reality TV personalities like the Kardashians or the Real Housewives of Pick-Your-City, on pedestals.

Give us Neil Armstrong any day. RIP.


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