Jimmy Buffett Sings About 'That Rocket' Neil Armstrong Rode

Apollo 11's Saturn V 1969
The rocket carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon blasts off from Florida on July 16, 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

In "The Rocket That Grandpa Rode," a song on Jimmy Buffett's first new album in four years, the "man from Margaritaville" sings about the man on the moon.

"And the kids turned into flying machines with their arms opened wide like wings, but one solitary boy knows the plane is not a toy, I'm talking about the man on the moon," croons Buffett in the twelfth track from "Songs From St. Somewhere," the singer's 27th studio album, which was released last week.

Jimmy Buffett is "talking" about Neil Armstrong, the moonwalker who died one year ago Sunday (Aug. 25). As commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong took "one small step" to make "a giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969. [Photos: Neil Armstrong - American Icon Remembered]

But it wasn't the astronaut's passing that apparently led to Buffet's song. As the lyrics to "The Rocket That Grandpa Rode" hint, inspiration came from a trip the musician took a year earlier, in July 2011.

"We're going to watch the shuttle fly away – last day," the song recounts.

Buffett was among the guests invited to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the final launch of the space shuttle program on July 8, 2011. To get to the VIP viewing site, the singer rode a bus with other spectators.

"And for some kids behind my seat, there's a very special treat, more than just history on parade," Buffett describes in "The Rocket That Grandpa Rode."

Those kids happened to be Armstrong's grandchildren.

Cover art for Jimmy Buffett's album "Songs from St. Somewhere" as released on Aug. 20, 2013. (Image credit: Mailboat Records)

As recalled by Rick Armstrong, one of the moonwalker's two sons, he and his children were seated in the very last row of the bus. As they were driven past the voluminous Vehicle Assembly Building, he remarked something along the lines of, "that’s where the rocket that grandpa rode was put together."

Hearing this, the man seated in front of Armstrong and his family turned around and replied, "That sounds like a good idea for a song," Rick Armstrong recounted in an e-mail to collectSPACE.com.

The exchange led to introductions, and Jimmy Buffett met the Armstrongs.

NASA's VIP launch viewing site is located adjacent to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets is on full display. The 363-foot-long (110 meter) booster was the type of rocketship that Armstrong — together with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — rode to the moon in July 1969.

"Giant nozzles, bolts and beams," Buffett sings, "She was a stairway to heaven, ole' Apollo 11."

"The rocketship their Grandpa drove," the chorus repeats.

Buffett did more than watch space shuttle Atlantis lift off that day. He also performed a private concert for shuttle workers, marking the end of 30 years of launches.

As "The Rocket That Grandpa Rode" ends, Buffett thanks NASA, as he does "Neil."

It's not the only time the singer paid tribute to the first man to walk on the moon.

On Aug. 25, 2012, on the day Armstrong died, Buffett was performing for an audience in Wisconsin, when at the end of his show, he dedicated an encore performance to the late astronaut.

"We lost a great flyer in America today," Buffett told the concertgoers. "Neil Armstrong passed away, the man on the moon. As you know, flying has been an inspiration in my life the whole time, so I'd like to send this off to Neil Armstrong's family tonight. It's a little thing called 'Oysters and Pearls' and he certainly was a pearl."

The song's lyrics cite aviator Charles Lindbergh and artist Elvis Presley. Buffett added a final stanza for that night's rendition.

"Neil Armstrong walked upon the moon, and now he has gone to heaven," Buffet sang.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.