America Lost A Hero Today: Godspeed, Neil Armstrong

25 Aug



Sad news today. Neil Armstrong died, taking with him a big part of my childhood. As someone who grew up in the shadow of the space program, actually the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, I followed his and every other astronauts’ career from the beginning. Von Braun and crew at Marshall built the boosters that launched our satellites as well as the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs into orbit and beyond. Back then when the ground around Huntsville shook, it wasn’t a Mother Nature thing, but rather a NASA thing. The huge test tower where the Saturn V boosters were static tested still stand and from the top you can see the entire center, the city, and much of the Tennessee River Valley.

I know there are those who say the moon landing never occurred, proving yet again that the morons walk among us.

I know. I was there. Not for the “one small step” but for the launch of Apollo 11. July 16, 1969, 9:32 a.m. It was a cool morning at Canaveral that day and once again the ground shook as the mighty Saturn V cluster sprang to life and Armstrong, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, rose into the sky in route to the moon. We stood awe-struck and watched as the first stage separated and the second stage carried them out of sight.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Truly one of the highlights of my life.

It was the summer between my freshmen and sophomore years of med school in Birmingham. Don Hawkins, a classmate of mine, and I were doing cardiovascular research projects that summer and took a few days off to venture down. Don’s aunt worked for NASA and lived in Cocoa Beach. She had grabbed us passes to the Cape for the launch. Not an easy ticket to come by.

I remember we arrived there a couple of days early, pulling in around 2 a.m. after the grueling drive from Birmingham. As we neared the Cape we could see the rocket. Off in the distance, lit like a monument. What a thrill.


The day before the launch, we toured NASA, seeing the VAB (Vertical Assembly Building), the huge transport vehicle that carried the massive rocket from that construction site to the launch pad, and, of course, the rocket. Up close and personal. At that time the VAB, which had four construction silos inside, held the Apollo 12 and the ill-fated Apollo 13 rockets, as well as the beginnings of Apollo 14. NASA always planned ahead.

They say two million people descended on the Florida Coast that week. That might be a conservative estimate. The night before launch day, Don and I went for a long run along the beach, an hour out and an hour back. Campers and campsites lined the beach every step of the way, all night parties in progress.

Around midnight we tried to get some sleep but that didn’t work out so well. Too amped. So around 4 a.m. we headed over to the Holiday Inn for breakfast where we ran into some of the ABC news crew getting ready to head for the Cape. We met our bus around 6 and reached the Cape shortly thereafter. It was cool and overcast. There were hundreds of people there, Apollo 11 standing across a flat stretch of swamp water from us. Speakers lined the shore and blasted out the chatter between Mission Control and Armstrong and crew. The tension was indeed palpable and as the minutes clicked by it only increased. Around 9, the sky cleared and the countdown seemed to quicken until 10 . . 9 . . 8 . . and so on. Then: “We have ignition. And lift off.”


My heart raced in my throat and, yes, there were tears. Same was true for everyone there.

The steam rose from the water used to deaden the vibrations and heat from the boosters, obscuring the rocket. Then, Apollo 11 slowly nosed from the cloud and rose above us, its exhaust laying down a thick contrail.

Heady stuff.

Ultimately, 12 Americans set foot on that desolate surface and returned to talk about it.

Apollo 11: Neil Armstrong/Buzz Aldrin

Apollo 12: Pete Conrad/Alan Bean

Apollo 14: Alan Shepard/Edgar Mitchell

Apollo 15: David Scott/James Irwin

Apollo 16: John Young/Charles Duke

Apollo 17: Gene Cernan/Harrison Schmidt


But Neil Armstrong was the first.

Godspeed, Neil Armstrong. Your place in the history of humans will live forever.



Posted by on August 25, 2012 in Uncategorized


13 responses to “America Lost A Hero Today: Godspeed, Neil Armstrong

  1. Teresa Reasor

    August 25, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    We never missed a launch on TV. My uncle was a postman and delivered mail to the Cape. He knew quite a few of the astronauts. He was really upset when Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died in the fire on Apollo 1. We all grieved for them.

    I’m really saddened by the thought that my children will never really understand or appreciate what chances these men took trying to break that barrier.

    They have a different perspective on space travel than we did.

    The pictures I’ve seen of the new module the Orion looks very similar to the old system. I hope they continue to work toward launch and don’t cancel because of funding.
    I hate for the dream of going back to the moon to die.
    Teresa R.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm

      I’m afraid the current administration cares little for NASA. Other agendas. Too bad. When you stop reaching for the stars, you are doomed to abject failure. Now we have to hitch rides with our dear friends the Russians. Not a pretty picture.


  2. Wally Lind

    August 25, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Yes, Godspeed Neil Armstrong! You were and are my hero!


  3. thelma straw

    August 26, 2012 at 6:12 am

    Doug, thank you for this. It is extremely moving – I had tears in reading it. Thelma Straw in Manhattan


  4. G.M. Malliet

    August 26, 2012 at 6:42 am

    I can still remember how thrilled I was as a young person by this accomplishment. It’s a loss if today’s “youngsters” won’t experience the same type of wonder.


  5. Cindy Butler

    August 26, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Wow! I was not there, but can remember watching it…. Loved this article. RIP Neil Armstrong!


  6. James Helton

    August 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I saw lift off of Apollo 10 in May 1969. This was after touring the Cape including the VAB and seeing the crawler; the vehicle that carried Saturn to the launch pad. What an awesome display of power was the launch! As Doug stated, we as a people should continue reaching for the stars.


  7. jennifer mcandrews

    August 27, 2012 at 8:21 am

    thanks for sharing such a wonderful memory.


  8. Bill Sewell

    August 27, 2012 at 10:20 am

    It was truly a different era. Because of Apollo 11, I made the trip to the Cape to see Apollo 12. Slept in my car but by golly I was going to be there for at least one launch.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 27, 2012 at 10:29 am

      Amazing, wasn’t it? A few years ago NASA invited us down for a shuttle launch. One of the final ones. It was a night launch and was spectacular. One of the highlights of that visit was meeting Edgar Mitchell—the 6th man to step on the moon. He was on Apollo 14 with Alan Shepard. Sorry to see our manned programs end.


  9. Jonathan Quist

    August 28, 2012 at 9:31 am

    I was in Clearwater at the time of the first shuttle launch. I realized, almost too late, that I’d have a clear view of the sky from the Courtney Campbell Causeway that crosses the bay to Tampa. As the countdown passed sixty seconds, I pulled to the side along with hundreds of others, got out of the car, and looked east.

    At first I thought I saw the contrail from a commercial jet, flying from east to west towards me.

    Eventually, the apparent western progress slowed and stopped, and I realized it was, in fact, Columbia. Though its trajectory was largely to the east, the sheer speed gave the trail the same appearance as an east to west flight.

    I was thrilled to have that brief glimpse of space exploration history, but Doug, I am jealous of the view you had!



    August 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Yes, Godspeed Neil Armstrong! You were and are my hero!


  11. authorcarolinavaldez

    September 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    The year we sent the Challenger up, I was a school R.N. and in my junior high at the time the principal, who was a comic, rushed past my office saying the Challenger had exploded. I thought it was a joke and quipped a retort.

    His face solemn, he turned to me and said, “No, it’s true, and I have to get to the classrooms.”

    Because a teacher was an astronaut on that mission, the students had been studying teaching materials written specifically for this event. Their rooms had been set up to watch the triumphant return to earth. To my horror I realized they had all witnessed the disaster.

    Later, the school district sent counselors to the schools to help these young people through their shock and grief, but they’ll always remember “when.”

    We paid the price to reach the moon, but we also extended our understanding of our universe.



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