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Moon Landing 50th: Footprints on the moon began with footprints at Purdue

Neil Armstrong came to Purdue in 1947 on a Navy scholarship from Wapakoneta, Ohio. The rest, literally, went down in history.

Posted: Jul 17, 2019 6:52 PM
Updated: Jul 18, 2019 9:07 AM

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — Neil Armstrong was 38-years-old when he walked on the moon. Fourteen years prior, he left those same footprints on Purdue University's campus. 

After skipping a grade in high school, Armstrong came to Purdue in 1947 on a Navy scholarship from Wapakoneta, Ohio. The rest, literally, went down in history.

A full moon over Purdue's Neil Armstrong statue on July 17, 2019

Tracy Grimm, Associate Head of Archives and Special Collections and Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration. conducts a tour of Apollo in the Archives: Selections from the Neil Armstrong Papers Exhibit. The exhibit is part of the 150th Giant Leaps events. (Purdue University/ Mark Simons)

"Here was this 17-year-old freshman, coming here to study engineering, scared," Purdue historian John Norberg said. 

Norberg enjoys telling the story of how Armstrong chose to study in West Lafayette. He said it was all based off a 1945 football game between Ohio State and Purdue. The Boilermakers soundly beat the Buckeyes that year, led by freshman quarterback named Bob DeMoss. A young Armstrong was inspired in the stands.

Armstrong came to Purdue pursuing an aeronautical engineering degree, wanting to design airplanes.

"He had to slog through calc 1 and calc 2," said Tracy Grimm, Associate Head of Archives and Special Collections at Purdue.

As part of his scholarship, Armstrong would leave Purdue, just two years into his studies to enter active duty. Armstrong trained to become a pilot in the Navy and spent his early 20s as part of 78 combat missions in the Korean War.

"Once he started flying jets, he found that to be a lot of fun," Norberg said.

Armstrong, with the rest of the GI's, would return to West Lafayette in 1952.

"He was a big shot on campus for what he had done, but he never talked about it. He never bragged, 'Oh I'm a jet pilot."

At ground level, Armstrong had other interests, playing the baritone horn in the Purdue All-American Marching Band.

"Neil loved music, recalled Norberg. "He told me in his life he could play at least seven instruments."

"He wrote a play when he was at Purdue in his fraternity," Grimm said showing off the items in Purdue's Archives. "He was the music director in his fraternity and we have his notebook wherein the back he kept this nice, neat grid with attendance!"

Norberg said those who knew him would say he was just like every other student. They didn't know what would come, and neither did Armstrong.

"It wasn't Neil Armstrong's goal to walk on the moon when he graduated in January of '55," Norbeg said. "But 14 years after he graduated, he walked on the moon."

Armstrong would graduate and be asked to apply to NACA's astronaut program (later NASA). Armstrong was not one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts chosen to attempt to put a man in space, however Purdue's Gus Grissom was chosen. Norberg said Armstrong wasn't chosen because he wasn't active military. 

Four Purdue astronauts were involved in the race to the moon. Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Roger Chaffe were the first four of Purdue's 24 NASA affiliated astronauts. 

Norberg said NASA noticed Neil Armstrong's natural calmness during a Gemini mission. Armstrong saved the mission after the capsule went out of control. Armstrong didn't panic, Norberg said. 

The challenges of the space race didn't end there. Two of Armstrong's fellow Boilermaker astronauts would die during testing of Apollo 1. After the tragedy that claimed three lives, including Grissom and Chaffey in January of 1967, the program was suspended.

Apollo 10 would fly in May 1969, the dress rehearsal setting up for one man to make one small step for mankind.

Historian John Norberg said he watched the moon landing while backpacking through France in 1969. Ten years later, while a reporter for Lafayette's Journal and Courier, Norberg said he was given the chance to interview Armstrong for the 10-year anniversary. He was given one question:

"The question I asked him was, 'Are you satisfied with what you said? That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind?' He said just immediately, 'Oh that's not the important thing I said that day.' So, of course, I said, 'What was the important thing you said that day?' He said 'The Eagle has landed.' Landing on the moon was very difficult. It had never been done before. In fact, Neil had crashed the test vehicle that they used on earth just shortly before the launch. He believed there was a 50/50 chance of them successfully landing and getting off the moon."

Six months after the lunar landing, Armstrong returned to his alma mater, accepting an honorary doctorate and surprising Purdue.

"One of the things we have is the Purdue centennial flag, he had taken that on Apollo 11 with him."

The Purdue Archives is now home to that piece of history and more. The exhibit Apollo in the Archives: Selections from the Neil A. Armstrong papers is open until Aug 16.

"We're so lucky. You can see how much Neil cared about Purdue and loved Purdue," Grimm said through a smile.

"July 20th, 1969 was the day the world stood still," Norberg said. "The world stopped. I mean it stopped. Everybody was inside their houses, watching TV all over the world."

In 2007, Purdue built a statue of Armstrong as a student in front of its engineering building, also named after him. Norberg recalled Armstrong once said, 'Only Purdue would put a statue of a scared freshman outside an engineering building.'

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