IRA FLATOW, HOST:
On March 16, 1966, a potentially fatal problem gripped the Gemini 8 space capsule. Orbiting high above the Earth, it began spinning out of control. Spiraling towards unconsciousness and, perhaps, death, Neil Armstrong shut down the malfunctioning thrusters and wrestled Gemini back to stability. This was neither the first nor the last time that Neil Armstrong had escaped disaster. As an Naval pilot in Korea, he managed to guide a bullet-ridden aircraft, missing three feet of wing, back to friendly territory.
On his first day as a test pilot, his plane lost three engines. He and his commander landed it on one. Or practicing the lunar landing, again, a malfunctioning rocket threatened to end his life and he ejected moments before impact. But it was during the Gemini mission that Gene Kranz, formerly flight director at NASA, saw that Armstrong had the right stuff.
GENE KRANZ: I had that sense that he was the right guy from the very first time I met him in Gemini. I watched him in Apollo. I worked with him in developing the landing strategy, and I knew that he was going to take it all the way to the surface if I could get him close enough.
FLATOW: So on Apollo 11, as the Eagle Lander descended towards a dangerous lunar landscape, it came as no surprise that a computer malfunctioned in the final, crucial seconds would find Neil Armstrong manually taking over control of the lander and guiding it to a safer spot with but 15 seconds of fuel left. Then he walked on the moon. Today, a service is being held in Ohio for Neil Armstrong, who passed away last week. After spending decades evading death as an aviator test pilot and astronaut, it finally caught him at the age of 82. He was a true American hero, celebrated in song, print and ticker tape parade.
But for those of us watching a grainy TV image that July night, his one small step was a uniting moment of sanity for a world weary and reeling from the hell of 1968, a year that saw Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy gunned down, the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, anti-war riots in Chicago, an American warship seized by North Korea. There was lots more. But for a brief moment and for decades to come, Neil Armstrong would change our world when he touched another.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARMSTRONG")
JOHN STEWART: (Singing) Black boy in Chicago, playing in the street, not enough to wear, not near enough to eat. And don't you know he saw it on a July afternoon? He saw a man named Armstrong walk upon the moon. The young girl in Calcutta, barely eight years old, and the flies that swarm the market place will see she don't get old. But don't you know she heard it on that July afternoon? She heard a man named Armstrong that walk upon the moon.
FLATOW: And that's it for SCIENCE FRIDAY this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.