Being The First Man On The Moon

<b>Ed Bradley</b> Talks To Neil Armstrong About Fame, Family And Apollo 11

This story originally aired on Nov. 6, 2005.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of an odd-looking spaceship and into the pages of history as the first man on the moon.

Today, he remains one of the most famous people on the planet, but he is also famously private. For years, Armstrong has shunned the media and the limelight, but last fall he took a giant leap back into the public view. He has finally authorized a biography, entitled First Man and written by James Hansen.

In November, he agreed for the first time to a television profile, speaking to 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley about his extraordinary life.

Neil Armstrong still remembers the powerful liftoff of Apollo 11. "It felt like a train on a bad railroad track, shaking in every direction. And it was loud, really loud."

Armstrong is 75 now, an aging hero, but his winning smile is still there. We remember him as the cool, confident commander of Apollo 11, joined by his crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

On a windswept day, Bradley went with Armstrong to an old Apollo launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to hear the story of one of man's greatest adventures.

"That July morning in 1969, when you came out and you gave that thumbs-up, I mean, that was a very confident view you put on," says Bradley.

"Yeah, but a little bit of a sham, I admit," says Armstrong. "You know, the reality is, a lot of times you get up and get in the cockpit, and something goes wrong somewhere and you go back down. So, actually, when you actually lift off, it's really a big surprise."

Perched atop a Saturn 5 rocket, the astronauts were on their way to meet the challenge President Kennedy had made eight years earlier: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade.

It took 400,000 workers and $24 billion, intended in large part to prove American superiority over the Soviets.

Armstrong acknowledges that the hopes of the nation were riding on the mission. "We wanted to do well. And, even more than that, you hope that you don't, you as a person, don't make any mistakes."

And he didn't. Armstrong's entire life had prepared him well, starting with a childhood fascination with flight. He earned his pilots license at 16 before he learned to drive. By age 21, he was flying combat missions over Korea. After the war, he became a hotshot test pilot, flying the famous X-15 at 4,000 miles an hour to the edge of the atmosphere.

It was during that time, in 1962, when he faced his most difficult test, losing his 2-year old daughter, Karen, to brain cancer.

Armstrong poured himself into his work. "I thought the best thing for me to do in that situation was to continue with my work, keep things as normal as I could. And try as hard as I could not to have it affect my ability to do useful things."

"But that's not an easy thing to do. How do you think you did?" Bradley says.

"At the time I thought the family was handling it well. And I was doing the best I could," Armstrong says.

During that same difficult year, Armstrong was chosen to be an astronaut. He flew his first space mission in 1966 on Gemini 8, and nearly lost his life when his tiny capsule briefly spun out of control.

He cheated death again two years later, while flying an experimental device designed to simulate a lunar landing. When it malfunctioned, Armstrong was sitting at the controls. He ejected barely 100 feet from the ground.

After the almost-fatal ordeal, Armstrong went back to his office to do some paperwork. "I did. There was work to be done," says Armstrong, matter-of-factly.

"Wait a minute. You were just almost killed," Bradley says.

"Well, but I wasn't," says Armstrong.