UND space faculty reflect on impact of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, 82, the first human to set foot on the Moon, died this weekend. He is widely respected in the aerospace community as a leading light.

Several University of North Dakota space scientists recollect the impact Amrstrong’s heroic feat had on their lives.

“I remember the day he and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon clearly, since my parents woke me up to watch it on TV,” said Pablo de Leon, who grew and studied in Argentina. “It produced such an impact on me that since then, I was interested in space and wanted one day to work on astronautics. So Armstrong’s Moon walk was fundamental in my life. Five hundred years from now he, along with (Soviet cosmonaut Yuri) Gagarin, will be remembered and their achievements honored as true pioneers of humankind in this new venture.”

Much of de Leon’s research at UND has focuses on developing improved new age space suits for the world’s future space explorers.

Armstrong, who climbed down from the Apollo 11 capsule to the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, was an Ohio farm native. A Navy combat aviator during the Korean War and a test pilot who flew the X15, Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics—the precursor to NASA—in 1955. After retiring from NASA in 1971, he was a college engineering professor and businessman, among other things.

Fellow naval aviator David Whalen, a faculty member in the UND Department of Space Studies and former aerospace industry executive, was flying a training mission when Armstrong landed on the Moon.

“My squadron was doing night ‘bounce’ drills—practice landings on a simulated carrier deck,” Whalen said. “When I got home, really tired, my wife kept waking me up for the Moon landing and the actual disembarkation. We were on our way to Vietnam a few weeks later.”

Whalen and other UND faculty have personally met Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s companion on the Moon flight along with Michael Collins. Aldrin, a one-time member of the UND Aerospace faculty, was the second human on the Moon.

For biophysicist Vadim Rygalov, also of UND Space Studies and a former Soviet space-based life support systems expert, Armstrong’s accomplishments was a lot about an everyday person doing unimaginably great things.

“The Apollo program that Armstrong was an integral part of was—and remains—the greatest example of exploratory programs ever attempted,” said Rygalov, who also researches closed ecological systems. “Exploration will never happen without great risk taking. Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon will stay in the same sequence of events as Joe Kittinger, the career U.S. Air Force pilot who parachuted from 19 miles up in 1960 and was the first human to cross the Atlantic solo in a gas balloon.”

Rygalov was a teenager in the former Soviet Union when Armstrong landed on the Moon.

“On the day and month of the Apollo 11 landing, I just graduated from the high school in the small city near Krasnoyarsk, and I was trying to pass my admission requirements to the Moscow Physical-Technical Institute, the top institution for the design and development of rocket technologies and space systems engineering.”

Rygalov noted that, unlike some 600 million other people in the world at the time, he didn’t have access to TV.

“But we knew about landing on the Moon from newspapers,” he said.

If you have recollections of the Moon landing day that you’d like to share, please contact:

Juan Miguel Pedraza, writer/editor
National Media Relations Coordinator
University of North Dakota |Office of University Relations
264 Centennial Drive Stop 7144 | Grand Forks, ND 58202-7144
Office 701.777.6571| Cell 701.740.1321

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