9.2 Did Neil Armstrong hide from the media out of guilt?

IN A NUTSHELL: No, he simply picked his media appearances very carefully after the overwhelming barrage of public events that followed the Moon landing. He preferred technical conferences, in which he was anything but shy and indeed proved to have a wry sense of humor.

THE DETAILS: According to some hoax theorists, Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon, became a recluse and never appeared on TV, refusing all interviews, after the initial celebrations for the Apollo 11 trip. This absence from the media was allegedly due to his guilt for lying to the entire world.

The truth is quite different. For example, in the 1970s Armstrong even did TV advertising campaigns for Chrysler (Figure 9-4).

Figure 9-4. Neil Armstrong in a TV advert for Chrysler (1979).

However, it is true that Armstrong chose his media appearances very carefully and protected his own image against anyone who tried to profit from his lunar endeavor. For example, in 1984 he sued Hallmark Cards for using his name and voice without permission for a Christmas decoration. Proceeds from the settlement, less legal feeds and costs, were donated to Purdue University, Armstrong’s alma mater.

In 2005 Armstrong’s barber auctioned off the astronaut’s hair clippings, which were bought by a collector for 3,000 dollars. Armstrong threatened legal action and the barber donated the proceeds of the auction to a charity.

One of Armstrong’s few personal interviews was granted in 2005 to CBS’s 60 Minutes (Figure 9-5) when his biography, curated by historian James Hansen and entitled First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, was published.

Figure 9-5. Neil Armstrong interviewed for 60 Minutes.

Armstrong was an extremely modest and reserved man who preferred to talk about technical matters rather than his personal feelings. He was part of the public inquiry boards for the Apollo 13 accident in 1970 and for the Challenger disaster in 1986. These roles placed him once again in the public spotlight at two dramatic times of the United States’ space program. He also hosted the documentary series First Flights with Neil Armstrong in 1991. More recently, he granted extensive technical interviews to the curators of the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal and appeared in the documentary When We Left Earth (2008).

On a lighter note, in 2009 he celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the first Moon landing by joining Aldrin and Collins at the John H. Glenn Lecture, an annual conference held at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and attended the gala for the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 12 at the Kennedy Space Center, where he demonstrated a talent for self-effacing humor.

In 2010 he also spoke publicly quite vehemently against the plans of the Obama administration to restructure NASA.*

* Neil Armstrong blasts Obama’s ‘devastating’ Nasa cuts, by Jacqui Goddard, Times Online, April 14, 2010.

These don’t seem to be the choices of someone who is shunning publicity out of guilt.

Moreover, Armstrong wasn’t at all impossible to reach: for example, in April 2011 some news reports claimed that he had been a follower of Indian guru Sai Baba, who had just died. So I contacted James Hansen, Armstrong’s biographer, to clarify the matter. Within a day, I received a personal e-mail from Neil Armstrong himself, in which he stated that he didn’t even know who Sai Baba was and had not communicated in any way with any of his associates or followers. He added that he was not surprised, as many religious organizations had claimed him as a member.