DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – John Zwez knew what he wanted to be during a Sunday picnic with friends and family.
The 9-year-old Wapakoneta student was hanging around a picnic table during a typical 1960s family get-together. His mom and dad shared small talk with friends Steve and Viola Armstrong – the parents of Neil Armstrong, at the time a civilian test pilot.
Steve and Viola began discussing the concerns they had for son Neil and his dangerous new job – he had become a test pilot for an airplane called the X-15 – a hypersonic jet whose Mach 6 speedrecord hasn’t been broken. The X-15 could enter the edge of space, with some pilots earning official designations as astronauts for breaking the required 50-mile barrier.
“It was the first time anything perked my ears up as an inquisitive child,” Zwez said.
Zwez grew to 6-foot-5 – five inches over the maximum height limit for astronauts. So his dream of joining the space race was out. Instead he went to Louisville and attended an electronics college.
“The recruiter showed me a photo of one of their graduates working on a Gemini spacecraft, and I was sold,” Zwez said.
Two and a half years later, he wasn’t working on electronics. He was installing the first displays in the Armstrong museum. He was the first director.
For 30 years, he collected stories about Neil, and helped preserve the Armstrong’s place among America’s heroes.
Here’s some of Armstrong’s story, outside the capsules and from those who had a chance to know him.
Armstrong’s mobile childhood
Neil Armstrong’s childhood was spent moving. He was born in a barn, just outside a farm house southwest of Wapakoneta.
The family eventually moved to St. Marys, and attended church at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. This is where Zwez’s family also attended.
Steve Armstrong worked for the state auditor, and often moved. The family was located in northern Ohio for a while, where Neil took his first airpline ride in a Ford Tri-Motor. He also saw the Cleveland Air Races that were held on Lake Erie. Due to safety factors, these races were later moved to Nevada, but not before making a lifelong impression on Neil.
When he move back to Wapakoneta, he got his pilot’s license at a small grass runway that had a couple hangers and couple planes outside Wapakoneta. He had his pilots license before he had his drivers license.
Typical childhood, for a brilliant kid
Zwez said Armstrong’s upringing was pretty normal. He performed with a music group locally, but in his high school math classes, teachers began to see the brilliance of their student. He quickly outpaced the classes and the ability of his teachers to keep up.
Myths about Armstrong’s anti-social personality
Zwez said Armstrong was quiet, but he was friendly and very personable, especially in a one-on-one setting. Armstrong’s humility toward his NASA accomplishments created myths of an anti-social Armstrong who didn’t like the public or people.
That wasn’t the case: During the 10th anniversary of the moon landing, Armstrong returned to Wapakoneta and asked Zwez what he needed him to do for the Moon Festival that day. Zwez had three options for him: the first was an air show at the local New Knoxville airport.
“He said, ‘That sounds interesting,” Zwez said. “We went down there and had a full escort by the Sheriff.
“Neil just loved it. He even got up, did some announcing for the air show and talked about the various planes flying, giving the audience details.”
Armstrong’s sons said he had a sharp and dry sense of humor, which he showcased around friends.
College and the Korean War
Armsrong went to Purdue University, where he pursued engineering. He was also a pilot in the Navy, which helped pay for his college tuition. During the Korean War, Armstrong left college and went overseas and flew the F9F-2 Panther, one of the Navy’s first jet aircraft.
According to author Jim Hansen, author of Armstrong’s only official biograhy “First Man,” Armstrong flew with Fighter Squadron 51.
The North Koerans would hang wiring to ensnare or damage low-flying aircraft. Armstrong was caught and lost six feet off his wing, but managed to fly back to South Korea and parachute over a Marine occuppied base.
Armstrong’s unshaken, cool demenaor made an impact on his flight commanders and the Marines he met on the ground. He flew 78 combat missions in North Korea.
Death of two-year-old daughter Karen left Armstrong devastated
More than the moon landing or any other event in his life, the moment that shaped him and shook him was the death of his daughter Karen at age 2.
Armstrong met his wife Janet when he returned from Korea to Purdue. They had one son and a daughter, who Karen suffered from a brain tumor. Radiation therapy improved her condition for a short period, but doctor’s said she was too small to handle chemotherapy. She died in 1962.
Like many events in Armstrong’s life, the death of his daughter was not highly discussed, but he was devastated and in many way and never recovered accoding to Hansen. The event also changed him.
“Neil felt personally responsible,” Hansen said. “He talked to as many medical people and scoured journals as much as he could think he could help. She died on the day of his and Janet’s wedding anniverary. For that reason, Neil and Janet never celebrated it afterward.”
Following family tragedy, Armstrong charges into job
Armstrong returned to test piloting as fast as he could after his daughter’s death, burying himself in work. After being accepted into the astronaut program, he worked 14 hours days for six days awake, according to interviews provided by Hansen for The Armstrong Tapes documentary.
Armstrong’s cool demeanor led him to be NASA’s choice to be first man on the moon
Armstrong’s incident in Korea – when he piloted his F9F Panther back to friendly territory with six-feet of wing missing, and parachuting into a Marine camp without breaking a sweat – left a major impression on his commanders.
Armstrong showed his coolness under pressure when a near disaster occurred during the Gemini 8 mission.
The mission featured a dock with an in-orbit craft and a planned EVA, where one astronaut would leave the capsule and perform a spacewalk. During the docking, Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott went into a spin. Their spacecraft was spinning one revolution per minute and the two were on the verge of blacking out when Armstrong hit the ship’s thrusters, Gemini 8 quit spinning, but had to immediately return to earth with little fuel remaining, scratching the rest of their mission.
Later it was discovered one of the thrusters had a short which caused it to malfunction, which caused the craft to start spinning.
Armstrong’s legend as cool-headed continued to grow after an accident where a training vehicle built to simulate the moon landing module expolded, with Armstrong parachuting out just seconds beforehand.
Armstrong was working in his office when someone told one of his fellow astronauts what happened earlier – that he nearly died. Unconvinced because Armstrong ws cooly working in his office, he asked Armstrong if the incident happened, and the stoic Ohioan said yes, but he was fine and didn’t see any reason for him to leave work since he had things to do.
Life after Apollo 11
Armstrong became a national and worldwide figure after the Apollo 11 mission. According to The Armstrong Tapes, his crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins considered the world tour afterward to be harder than the actual moon mission.
With his position as first man to step on the moon, Armstrong would no longer be considered for flights, so he was given a position in NASA working on aeronautics, which quickly turned into a PR position as NASA constantly used him for autograph signings and had him out in public. He left NASA shortly after and took a teaching position at the Univerity of Cincinnati, teaching aeronautics and moved into a farmhouse in Lebanon.
Farming runs in the family
While his father Steve worked as a state auditor, the rest of his family worked in West Central Ohio in farming. When Armstrong moved back to Ohio to Lebanon, he bought a farm and worked it regularly.
While jumping out of a trailer, he caught his ring finger and tore it off his hand. He had to be flown to Louisville to have it re-attached.
Armstrong spent the later years of his life in the Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill.
Armstrongs divorce after 38 years
In 1994, Armstrong came home from work to find a note from his wife that she had left him and was getting a divorce.
Janet Armstrong had dealt with the emotional turmoil of not only being the wife of a pilot and an American astronaut, but one of the most famous people on earth. Though they had another child after the death of their daughter Karen, the emotional scars from their daughter’s death lingered.
Armstrong married his second wife Carol the same year. They remained married until his death in 2012.
Mark and Eric Armstrong – coming to the rescue
Neil made a trip to the museum in Wapakoneta to greet Zwez with more memorabilia he had collected. While there, Zwez said offhand the movie theater, which showed a half-hour documentary on Armstrong and the space program, wasn’t working well since they converted to Laserdisc in the late 80s.
Armstrong contemplated for a moment, and said he would talk to his sons Mark and Eric and have him call Zwez.
A short time later, the two Armstrong brothers had created one of the first digital media players and a custom program for the Armstrong museum movie theater. Zwez was able to use a Macintosh computer to program the player to play and and end at exact frames on the Laserdisc, and to turn the theater lights on and off at specific time frames and at the end of the day.
Neil Armstrong’s penchant for engineering and discovery was passed on to his sons, who found their path in other ways working on computer software
Later they played a major hand in the production of “First Man,” the movie based on Hansen’s book starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong.
The Armstrong brothers have been major contributors to the museum. The two donated two statues of their father to the museum, both are placed outside.
Mark and Wendy Armstrong pledged money for the Neil Armstrong STEM Room at the museum, dedicated to help local students who have interest in STEM classes and job fields. They were at the museum on Sunday, July 14 for the STEM room’s dedication.
Stories and more stories
During a December afternoon, Armstrong visited Wapkoneta and delivered more items he had been given as awards to the museum. He talked to Zwez, who then gave him a tour of the museum and showed some of their latest displays. The two chatted about the Gemini program among other things.
As they walked, an older couple followed, including a man with a cane. Zwez saw them, but figured they were probably watching Armstrong and recognized him.
After the tour, Armstrong and Zwez walked into Zwez’s office where they sat down and talked.
Soon, the man with the cane appeared, knocking on the door. Zwez asked if he needed help, and the man asked Zwez’s visitor if he was Neil Armstrong. Armstrong, always proper, stood up and shook his hand and said, “Yes, I’m Neil Armstrong.”
Zwez said before the man could leave his audience, he was yelling loudly to his wife, “I was right, that is Neil Armsrong! You said it wasn’t!” Leaving the museum director and the space ace a bit confused. Meeting the first man on he moon fell a distant second to beating his wife in an argument.
Zwez said, “I think that might have been the first time in his life he was right and his wife was wrong.”
Darker side of fame
Zwez said astronauts often had problems when in public and Armstrong had his share.
While visiting the museum on a busy summer afternoon, he was talking to Zwez near the gift store. A man appeared and began demanding Armstrong confess to the moon landing being a fraud. The man became more heated, and the 6-foot-5 Zwez quickly got in between Armstrong and the man who accosted him. Zwez asked Armstrong to get in his car and leave. Museum staff called the police.
“Apparently this was something many of the astronauts had to deal with,” Zwez said. “I know Buzz Aldrin actually punched a guy.”
The momen was captured on film several years ago, adding to Aldrin’s growing legend.