He made history as the first human to step onto the surface of the moon, but Neil Armstrong was, above all else, a pilot. It's what he'd wanted to be since he was a kid. Born in 1930, he grew up making model airplanes and reading aviation magazines; he got his pilot's license at 16, before he got his driver's license.
After college and combat service in the US Navy during the Korean War, in 1955 he joined NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, as a test pilot. It was a decision that set him on the path to becoming an astronaut.
Originally published Sept. 29. Updated Oct. 11: Added two photos of the Apollo 11 mission and one of the X-15 rocket plane.
This photo from October 1956 shows Armstrong aboard the iron cross attitude simulator, used by the NACA to test early reaction controls -- that is, thrusters -- for aircraft making high-altitude supersonic flights. It let a test pilot like Armstrong get a feel for pitch, roll, and yaw, and recorded data on how the control stick handled.
Following a flight in 1960, Armstrong stands next to a North American Aviation X-15, one of three such rocket-powered hypersonic aircraft. He made seven X-15 flights between December 1960 and July 1962, reaching a peak altitude of 207,500 feet (39.3 miles) and a top speed of 3,989 mph (Mach 5.74).
Armstrong's experiences as a test pilot flying the X-15 are a central element in First Man, the new movie about him starring Ryan Gosling. Directed by Damien Chazelle, it opens Oct. 12.
The X-15 cockpit was a tight fit. "When you're dressed up in that pressure suit, and you get the hatch closed down on you, you find that it is a very, very confined world in there," Armstrong told biographer James Hansen. "The windshield fits over you so snugly that it's very difficult to see inside the cockpit."
Military pilots never know where they might crash-land or end up after bailing out, so survival training is a must. That thinking carried over to astronauts as well. In June 1963, that meant several days in the jungles of Panama for this group, which included Armstrong (second from left), John Glenn, Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad.
As NASA geared up for a moon landing before the end of the 1960s, Armstrong drew on his test pilot skills to evaluate the Bell X-14A (in the background), a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, to see if it could be of use in simulating a lunar landing. After 10 flights in February 1964, Armstrong said no, it wasn't right. Little did he know at the time that he would be the first person to pilot a machine to the surface of the moon.
Armstrong's first flight into orbit came in March 1966 in the Gemini VIII mission, teamed with astronaut David Scott. This was a big occasion: It would be the first docking of two spacecraft in Earth orbit. To make that happen, NASA had to launch two rockets into space less than two hours apart, one carrying Armstrong and Scott, the other with the Agena target vehicle.
The docking with Agena went as planned. But then the attached spacecraft began tumbling because of a stuck thruster, and the spinning continued even after the astronauts undocked. After some tense moments, Armstong, the command pilot, was able to guide the Gemini capsule to a safe re-entry.
US Air Force pararescue divers assist Armstrong and Scott after the Gemini VIII splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 10 hours and 41 minutes after liftoff from Cape Kennedy in Florida. Because of the problems with the flight, Scott wasn't able to perform a planned spacewalk.
After his own Gemini flight, Armstrong (at right) served as a backup pilot for the Gemini XI mission, which flew in September 1966. Also pictured here, at the Gemini Mission Simulator facility at Cape Kennedy, Florida, are (from left) William Anders, also a backup astronaut, and the two men who did fly that mission, Richard Gordon and, with his foot up, Pete Conrad.
In February 1969, Armstrong poses at the Lunar Landing Research Facility at Langley Research Center in Virginia. While this contraption looks like the LLRV, it's not free-flying even though it has a rocket engine to provide thrust. Instead, it's suspended by cables that held five-sixths of its weight, to approximate the gravity of the moon.
Before any mission, and certainly before one as momentous as a moon landing, astronauts spend months in training. Here, a month before liftoff, Armstrong gets the lay of the land in the Apollo Lunar Module Mission Simulator.
The Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle, seen after separating from the command module before descending to the moon's surface. The stringy items hanging from the LM's legs are sensing probes that would signal the imminent landing and let the astronauts know to shut off the descent engine. For the return trip, only the top portion would ascend back to orbit. The bottom half -- the part in gold foil -- would remain on the moon.
The person in the spacesuit is astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong's companion on the lunar surface. Look closer at the visor of the helmet, though, and you'll see Armstrong's reflection as he takes the photo.
This is what the activity on the moon looked like to television viewers, as captured by the Deep Space Network tracking station in Goldstone, California. Armstrong is in front of the lunar module, and Aldrin is at the right edge of the frame.
After they were picked up from their capsule, the Apollo 11 astronauts went into quarantine on the USS Hornet. They were hardly isolated, however. They even had a visit from US President Richard Nixon. (Left to right, Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, Aldrin and Nixon.)
New York City gave the Apollo 11 astronauts a hero's welcome, including a ticker tape parade. The three men are standing in the lead car, waving to the crowd (from left, Collins, Aldrin and, with his face obscured by his arm, Armstrong).
In October 1978, nearly a decade after the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong was one of the first six recipients of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, presented here by President Carter. Other recipients that day included John Glenn and Alan Shepard.