Walking on the Moon was a turning point for the entire species. We saw a bright light in the heavens, and instead of falling to our knees we jumped into a rocket. Note: I’m going to capitalize Moon for this entire article, because when we can master the law of gravity, the laws of grammar can suck my Saturn V booster.
Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon, but that was at least his fourth incredible landing. Here are three more touchdowns which would have been the coolest thing he’d ever done, if he hadn’t done the coolest thing anyone has ever done.
1. Fighter Jet Escaping The Dinosaur Space Shuttle Before Landing on the Moon
One of the few people on Earth who deserves to be as famous as they are, and before taking one small step for mankind, he flew experimental space planes for us. Even when those planes didn’t exist yet.
The X-20 Dyna-Soar was an ancestor of the Space Shuttle and without question the coolest-named vehicle ever made. X-20 Dinosaur spaceplane! Those are the coolest words, numbers and letters ever. We’re fairly sure a critical hit from Space Dinosaur could kill God. The Dyna-Soar was to be a human intercontinental ballistic missile, an early attempt at space flight fitted with wings to skipping stone off the entire atmosphere. Neil looked at this attempt to turn humanity into a warhead aimed at space and thought “I’d better practice what happens when that blows up with me in it.” The escape system in case of launch abort was the end of an action movie, firing the spaceplane’s boosters to escape from an exploding Titan missile. And Neil couldn’t be bothered to wait until it was built to try that.
Instead he took an F5D Skylancer and practiced for the accidental disaster by doing it on purpose. He flew the F5D at 250 meters per second at a height of a Titan missile, only 66 meters, meaning he was quarter of a second from exploding into the ground even before practicing the disaster. He then yanked the plane up 90 degrees, simulating the escape vector of the Dyna-Soar, pulling 5 gs in the process while a blink from crashing, and while his body was still trying to work out which way to throw all his blood, he worked out which way was was the ground, realigned, and landed perfectly.
The maneuver was so badass that even though the Dyna-Soar was never built, the USAF instituted it as a Test Pilot training exercise. Presumably to say “You must have balls this big to join the Air Force.”
2. Seconds From Death, Goes Back To Work
The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) makes death-traps look safe. Known to test pilots as the “flying bedstead” and to the staff at Edwards Air Force base as “That pile of exploded wreckage we keep having to clean up”, it looked like an alien robotic spider. And was just as determined to kill human astronauts.
Most of the hardware was designed to cancel out gravity so that pilots could practice the lunar landing. This didn’t leave much to help the actual pilots. Most LLRVs ended in explosion, including this one with Neil Armstrong strapped into the front.
Note how it explodes before it even hits the ground: that’s its idea of being nice. Because the first explosion was the rocket ejection seat saving Neil Armstrong’s life from the second, larger, explosion. Neil got up, dusted himself off, and went back to the office to file reports and work out what he’d learned from nearly being turned into charred astronaut confetti. Fellow astronaut Al Bean entered the office and simply refused to believe that Neil had almost exploded, because people in that situation don’t immediately resume filing, and had to be assured by other astronauts that yes, Neil Armstrong really was that ice-cold a badass.
3. Exploding A Superfortress To Launch An Experiment
In 1956 Neil was co-piloting a B-29 Superfortress towing an experimental Skyrocket. Even the introduction sentence to his stories makes him cooler than almost everyone else on the planet. Pilot Stan Butchart was in control when number four engine developed serious problems. Very serious for Jack McKay, who was actually in the Skyrocket which couldn’t separate at less than 210 mph, and for Neil and Stan, who couldn’t land until that happened. Without enough engine power to separate they just pointed the nose at the ground and let physics do the rest, accelerating the Superfortress enough to release the Skyrocket and explode the failing engine. Only one of those was on purpose.
The detonation of engine number four also smashed engine number three, damaged number two, and forced them to shut down number one to avoid flipping the plane upside down. The damage also destroyed the links to Stan’s controls, because even the disaster decided that shit this serious needed Neil at the helm. Of course he landed safely, and went on to live a life so incredible that landing a one-engined part-exploded Superfortress is only referred to as a “footnote” in his biography.
At this point we’d call him a hero, an inspiration or an icon of what humanity can achieve, but we don’t have to, because Neil Armstrong already means all of those things.
Luke McKinney investigates The Most Insanely Evil Corporation in Movie History and learns 4 Things Star Trek Teaches Us About Video Games. Follow him onTumblr, and he responds to every single tweet.