Armstrong on Apollo: 'It was a good thing to do'

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, recalls the engineering triumph that won the Cold War space race and opened the door to manned exploration of the solar system.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
3 min read

The first man on the moon took a moment Monday, on the 40th anniversary of his "giant leap," to remember the Apollo program and the engineering triumph that won the Cold War space race and opened the door to the manned exploration of the solar system.

Speaking at an Apollo celebration at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, Neil Armstrong enjoyed a standing ovation before sharing his view of the achievement that carried him to the moon, concluding with a simple, heartfelt "Apollo was a good thing to do."

Neil Armstrong's shadow on the moon. NASA

"Thank you so much," he said from the stage. "Whenever I come to this city, if I have 20 minutes to spare, I come to this building. Not necessarily to look at craft hanging from the ceiling and sitting on the floors. But to absorb, by osmosis or radiation or some unknown mechanism, some of the history that resides here. And it must have worked, because as one young man recently said to me, 'Pop, you're history!'

"So let me take one minute to recount some of those flights that we saw in the video earlier. Forty winters have passed since the first manned flights of the Apollo spacecraft. And so, let's kind of return to that remarkable time between October of 1968 and November of 1969.

"Those 13 months began with the first manned Apollo flight, which demonstrated the ability of its command module to fly longer than the duration of a round trip to the moon. Just two months later, the second flight, in a remarkably bold move, flew to, and orbited, the moon.

"The third flight, in Earth orbit, tested the lunar module in its inaugural flight. Two months later, the fourth flight took a lunar module to lunar orbit in a dress rehearsal that demonstrated the ability of mission control to communicate and track two vehicles in different orbits about the moon.

"The fifth flight completed the final step, demonstrating the ability to descend to, land on, and return from the moon to lunar orbit. The sixth flight, the last flight of 1969m, was nearly operational, landing on the lunar surface precisely alongside the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, which had arrived there two-and-a-half years earlier.

"No flight test program of any complex flying machine was ever conducted so efficiently and with such a small number of flights. Six more ever more complex and difficult flights would continue the Apollo exploration program over the following three years.

"Those successes were very impressive 40 years ago, but they were not miraculous. They were the result of the imagination and inventive minds of the people in the Apollo project since its inception eight years earlier. Those years engendered some of the most challenging, most difficult and most productive work in the history of modern engineering.

"Eight years, including a year and a half of redesign as a consequence of those deficiencies that were responsible for the tragic and fatal fire of the Apollo 1 spacecraft. Creating a strategy, a configuration and a craft to carry men to the moon was staggeringly complex. It required the very best in creativity, determination and perseverance that could be assembled in the American workplace.

"Seldom in recorded history have so many government employees so intensely and for such long hours worked at their chores. And seldom have so many aerospace engineers and craftsmen been so careful, so diligent and so determined.

"It was a superb national enterprise. Our knowledge of the moon increased a thousand-fold and more. Techniques were developed for interplanetary navigation and travel. Our home planet has been seen from afar and that perspective has caused us to think about its - and our - significance.

"Children, inspired by the excitement of space flight, have come to appreciate the wonder of science, the beauty of mathematics, and the precision of engineering. Young minds in our own country and around the world now believe they can do great things. And they can, if they apply themselves as intensely as the Apollo workforce did four decades ago.

"Tonight, we remember a special time. We remember a time, a passion for perfection, we remember a level of achievement, which really surprised us all. Human interest and media coverage this month confirmed that many others remember that time and remember Apollo with some warmth and even a little admiration.

"It left a lasting imprint on society and history. Tonight, we remember and congratulate all those who made it possible. Apollo was a good thing to do."