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 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 Popular Science 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, Popular Science 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, we said, “will be an epic achievement—the conquest of the greatest engineering challenge we have ever faced.”
The June 1989 issue of Popular Science contains perhaps our sweetest tribute to Armstrong. Cosmochemist James R. Arnold, of the University of California, San Diego, developed a way to estimate the erosion rate of lunar rocks and soil. Because the moon lacks an atmosphere, and therefore wind and rain, the only threat to Armstrong’s footprints are slow-working cosmic rays. Arnold calculated that the momentous steps will be visible in the dust for another half million years. “The moon is a quiet place,” he said.
Armstrong was born August 5, 1930, in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He died August 25, 2012, following complications from heart bypass surgery. He was 82.
This article originally appeared on PopularScience.com on August 27, 2012.