Popular Science first printed the words “Neil Armstrong” in June 1958, when the 27-year-old “tall, slim, crew-cut blond” aeronautical engineer was training for a flight in the X-15: an experimental “mile-a-second rocket plane” that would take a man to the edge of space. “The men who first fly it will take a tentative dip in the mysterious sea of outer space before future men plunge in,” wrote PopSci reporter Wesley S. Griswold.
But before he could fly the 4,000-mile-per-hour space plane, Armstrong had to test his skills under extreme G-forces in a giant Navy centrifuge in Johnsville, Pa. He would be strapped in to a working model of the X-15’s cockpit, inside a gondola attached to the end of a 50-foot rotor arm. “An incredibly complicated and ingenious hook-up between gondola, centrifuge and an analog computer enables the pilot in the gondola to put the centrifuge through dizzying maneuvers that simulate the X-15’s expected flight behavior,” Griswold wrote.
(Though Armstrong took the X-15 on seven low-altitude test flights, pilot Joseph A. Walker was the only person to fly the plane higher than 100 kilometers, the definition of a spaceflight. The X-15, retired in 1970, still holds the record for the fastest manned aircraft.)
Just weeks before the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, PopSci published a breathless moment-by-moment guide to what Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would face on their trip to the moon:
“[T]he moon’s surface, out of sight of the crew before, creeps into view from the bottoms of their windows. What they see is a flat and comparatively crater-free lunar plain...
Finally comes the high spot of the mission – an action-packed program of two hours and 40 minutes of ‘moonwalking.’ Descending a ladder from the forward hatch, Commander Armstrong is to be first to set foot on the moon. Almost his first act is to scoop up a bagful of loose lunar soil, and hand it up to Aldrin to stow away.”
The moon landing, PopSci said, “will be an epic achievement – the conquest of the greatest engineering challenge we have ever faced.”
Armstrong died Aug. 25 following complications from heart bypass surgery. He was 82.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.