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Science

Neil Armstrong was 'the ultimate astronaut'

John Saxon, an Apollo 11 operations chief at Australia's Honeysuckle Creek, recalls the late Neil Armstrong. Saxon met the man, who became the first to walk on the moon in 1969.

DW: John Saxon, you met Neil Armstrong twice and have called him an incredible human being - what made Neil Armstrong incredible?

John Saxon: I've had a bit of a think about this because I've been talking to a few people and I've come to the conclusion that we all meet plenty of prominent people in our lifetime in one way or another and in our presumptuous way we think, "Oh, if circumstances had been different I could probably have done that and I could be famous, too." But when you meet an astronaut, and I've met plenty, you never ever feel that. They are incredible human beings, marvelous at their work, wonderful in many ways, and Neil Armstrong was at the top of the heap. He was the ultimate astronaut. Marvelously cool in a crisis and just a great human being as well. It's just so sad that he's gone.

A montage (2 photos) of the astronaut Neil Armstrong - on the left in 1969 and on the right in 2010

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon

And was he also fearless? From what we gather, the early astronauts were a little more adventurous. Is that true of Neil Armstrong?

I think it was true of all the astronauts at that time. I mean, [US President John F.] Kennedy had set this goal of landing people on the moon and hopefully getting them back to Earth before the end of the decade in 1969. And they admitted the chances of their having a successful mission with Apollo 11 was probably only 50 percent. And yet there was a good chance they might survive. But it was an incredibly risky thing to do. No question about it. I think Apollo 8 was probably the most gutsy mission of them all. But Apollo 11 - when you add the landing - it makes it an exceptional mission.

It was a very difficult landing and if we compare it to what we just saw with the Mars landing with Curiosity, Apollo 11 had, if I can put it this way, far inferior technology compared to what we see now. But they still managed.

Yes, well I think the difference was that you had men up there who could react to circumstances probably better than most machines could. And even though the technology was ridiculously old-fashioned by current standards the mission was well understood. And there was a good chance they might not make it, but there was a better chance that they would not kill themselves in the effort I think.

And, famously, Neil Armstrong almost did die on three occasions and yet he maintained a very private persona, didn't he?

The Apollo 11 crew - US astronauts Neil Armstrong (left), Michael Collins (center), and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin (right)

The Apollo 11 crew - US astronauts Neil Armstrong (left), Michael Collins (center), and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin (right)

That's right. I think he felt that he was just doing his job. He was an engineer who happened to be in the right place at the right time. I don't think it was quite that easy. I think a lot of thought went into having him be the first man to walk on the moon if possible. I think he was by far the best choice, to be honest: a civilian, not a military man and such a cool customer. I mean, here he was taking off in the Saturn V rocket, the biggest rocket ever made and that anybody has flown in, going off to the moon and he's got a heart rate of 84 beats per minute. You know, I get that coming up my front steps! Okay, he was doing 116 beats per minute - I've got copies of the traces because we were required to monitor all this - when he stepped onto the moon he was doing 116, which was pretty high for him but nevertheless very low for the majority of us.

And that was part of the data you were trying to collect, wasn't it? More than just whether people could land on the moon, it was more about how humans reacted in that environment.

Well, you might have known that there was discussion within NASA before Apollo 8 about whether or not they should take television to the moon's surface - if it could be developed in time - whether it was too much of a hassle for the astronauts… I mean, people who subscribe to hoax theories would be really impressed if they hadn't taken a TV camera with them.

Or perhaps that was the double trick!

Yes! [laughs]... But the TV was not the most important data though, the most important data by far was the astronauts' biomedical data, the heartbeats, respiration, suit temperatures and pressure, oxygen levels, and all the rest of it. That was the important data. TV was most definitely secondary. Actually, it was probably in third order of priority, really.

You were probably a little preoccupied by the operation that was unfolding in front of you at Honeysuckle Creek but what was it like for you, what was the atmosphere like at Honeysuckle Creek? I mean, you saw these great pictures coming in before the rest of the world.

Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon

Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon

Well it was pretty tense. But we had had a lot of tense simulations, dozens of them. And we were really pleased to see things going more or less according to plan, which seldom happened during simulations. So, it was tense and very busy, but not really a huge thing. Had we sat and thought [about the fact] that 20 percent of the world's population was watching, we might have been a little more concerned. But as it was, I listen to those tapes and I think: Well, how brash and… we just took it all in our stride.

John Saxon worked for NASA for over 30 years, based mainly at the Honeysuckle Creek Manned Spaceflight operations center in Australia. He was operations supervisor during the Apollo 11 mission and met Neil Armstrong on two separate occasions – the last time being about a year before Armstrong died. Honeysuckle Creek was responsible for providing the world with the first pictures of the moon landing in 1969.

Interview: Zulfikar Abbany / hc

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