Neil Armstrong Steps Into 60 Minutes Spotlight

Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon back in July 1969 remains surprised that America deserted the Apollo program so quickly in the early 1970s.

"I knew we [the Apollo program] would have a limited life," Armstrong said in an interview on the CBS news show 60 Minutes which aired Sunday. "But I must say it was a bit shorter than my expectation. I fully expected that by the end of the [20th] century we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did," Armstrong said.

The reason for the United States distancing itself from human space missions beyond Earth orbit is clear in Armstrong's mind. It was fueled by the edginess created by the space race itself, between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

"When we lost the competition, we lost the public will to continue," the now 75-year-old Armstrong explained to CBS's Ed Bradley.

Shuns acclaim

Armstrong said that he doesn't warrant the acclaim he was afforded by the milestone-making Apollo 11 flight, and his one small giant leap onto the lunar surface.

"I just don't deserve it [the attention for being the first man on the Moon] I wasn't chosen to be first," said Armstrong. I was just chosen to command that flight. Circumstance put me in that particular role. That wasn't planned by anyone."

The 60 Minutes conversation was billed as the first television profile the moonwalker has ever agreed to do.

Armstrong is the subject of a new authorized biography titled First Man - The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, written by James R. Hansen and published by Simon & Schuster, which, like CBS, is a Viacom company.

Near-death encounter

One of the disappointing parts of gaining astronaut celebrity status, said Armstrong on the television broadcast, was the way he was treated differently after the Apollo 11 mission.

"Friends and colleagues, all of a sudden, looked at us...treated us slightly differently than they had months or years before when we were working together," he said. "I never quite understood that."

"The one thing I regret was that my work required an enormous amount of my time and a lot of travel," Armstong told Bradley, "and I didn't get to spend the time I would have liked with my family as they grew up."

One incident highlighted by Armstrong was a near-death encounter while practicing on a lunar lander training craft. He ejected from the vehicle when it got out of control - but very close to the ground and barely escaped with his life.

"Yeah, probably would have [been killed]," said Armstrong to Bradley, adding that he did return to his office right after the incident to do paperwork.

"That's true...I did. There was work to be done," Armstrong commented with a smile.

Saturn V: loud train ride

In detailing the Apollo 11 mission's liftoff atop the enormous firepower delivered by the Saturn V booster, Armstrong explained: "It felt like a train on a bad railroad track and shaking in every direction. And it was loud...really loud."

The Apollo effort of landing men on the Moon was the result of some 400,000 workers and $24 billion dollars.

And while the Apollo project was meant to fulfill the goal outlined earlier by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Armstrong added: "You hoped that you as a person don't make any mistakes."

For Armstrong and colleague Buzz Aldrin, that first Moon landing could have been a disaster.

"Our autopilot was taking us into a very large crater....about the size of a big football stadium with steep slopes on the crater, covered with very large rocks about the size of automobiles. That was not the kind of place I wanted to try to make the first landing," Armstrong recalled.

Change in plans

While Apollo 11's touchdown was manually flown, that fact unnerved CBS broadcaster, Walter Cronkite, reunited with Armstrong for the 60 Minutes show.

Cronkite remembered the detour and change in landing plans.

"Yes, I was very much concerned," Cronkite remarked. "I think all of us that were following the flight that closely were scared to death. If he wasn't, we were," Cronkite admitted, leaving the newsman "perfectly speechless" once Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon's crater pocked terrain.

Remembering and recommending the Moon

In recounting his walk on the Moon, Armstrong said the lunar surface was a "brilliant surface in that sunlight."

"The horizon seems quite close to you because the curvature is so much more pronounced than here on Earth. It's an interesting place to be...I recommend it," Armstrong said.

Concerning NASA's present day manifesto to put humans back on the moon by 2018 and later on Mars, CBS's Bradley asked Armstrong if such treks are something the history-making moonwalker would consider at this point in his life.

"I don't think I'm going to get the chance," Armstrong responded. "But I don't want to say that I'm not available."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.