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MESSENGER Mission News
August 27, 2012

MESSENGER Team Mourns the Loss of Neil Armstrong
The news of Neil Armstrong's death this weekend left many members of the MESSENGER team mourning his loss and reflecting on his legacy. Armstrong died on August 25, at the age of 82. He commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969; and an estimated 600 million people witnessed, by television or radio, as he became the first man to set foot on its surface.

"Neil Armstrong was an enduring icon for all of us interested in space and planetary exploration," says MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "The Apollo 11 landing and Armstrong's first footstep on another world linked, in one historic instant, all of humanity with access to television or radio. That Armstrong's passing was barely one month after that of Sally Ride reminds us that the first pioneers of space travel transcended gender but were united by a courageous sense of adventure and wonder."

Larry Nittler, MESSENGER's Deputy Principal Investigator and a cosmochemist in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, adds, "Although I was only an infant when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, some of my earliest memories are of returning Apollo capsules. The extraordinary achievements of Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts had an enormous impact on my life, certainly influencing my decision to go into planetary science."

Although Armstrong is best known for the historic moonwalk, that feat topped a string of accomplishments that included piloting the X-15 rocket plane and completing the first space docking maneuver during the Gemini 8 mission, which included a successful emergency landing. In the early 1960s, the X-15 became the first winged aircraft to attain hypersonic velocities of Mach 4, 5, and 6 (four to six times the speed of sound) and to operate at altitudes well above 100,000 feet.

"X-15 flew to the edge of space 199 times, and Armstrong made seven of those flights," notes APL's MESSENGER Project Scientist Ralph McNutt, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. "I also remember well his salvage of the Gemini 8 mission -- a key to the lunar orbit rendezvous approach to manned lunar landings -- and his last-minute escape from the 'flying bedstead' (a nickname given to two experimental aircraft) during the development of Apollo, when America's race to the Moon with the Soviets had real, and serious, implications for the winner."

For teenagers across the country, McNutt says, Armstrong brought to life the iconic and heroic character typical in science-fiction books -- "the engineer/pilot, the astronaut who was leading American technology forward and humanity to the skies and beyond" -- inspiring legions to become space explorers.

MESSENGER Science Payload Manager Robert Gold of APL, agrees. "Armstrong's first step on the Moon confirmed my resolve to understand how our solar system works and how the Sun affects our life on Earth."

Brown University's James Head, a MESSENGER Co-Investigator, called Armstrong "a wonderful example of the type of selfless dedication that can enable this country to accomplish things that seem impossible." Head's first job after graduate school was with the Apollo Lunar Exploration Program.

"All of the Apollo astronauts were experienced, intelligent, highly motivated, and fully dedicated to President Kennedy's goal of landing a human on the Moon and returning them safely by the end of the decade," says Head. "Neil Armstrong stood out to me because of his complete dedication and professionalism, his unflappable nature, and his immediate personal acceptance of anyone who had something to say that would help accomplish the President's goal, even a young twenty-something who was excited about the geology of the Moon."

MESSENGER Co-Investigator Stamatios M. Krimigis, of APL, remembers talking with Armstrong at length in the late 1980s during the time of his testimony to the Augustine Commission (of which Armstrong was a member) on the future of the U.S. space program. "In that discussion I found him to be a thoughtful and modest person ... and fully appreciative of the key role of robotic spacecraft in space exploration," Krimigis says. "Thinking back on that conversation, I can fully appreciate his family's description of him as a 'reluctant American hero.' His modesty and humility are a lesson for us all."

MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is a NASA-sponsored scientific investigation of the planet Mercury and the first space mission designed to orbit the planet closest to the Sun. The MESSENGER spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004, and entered orbit about Mercury on March 17, 2011 (March 18, 2011 UTC), to begin a yearlong study of its target planet. MESSENGER's extended mission began on March 18, 2012. Dr. Sean C. Solomon, the director of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, leads the mission as Principal Investigator. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory built and operates the MESSENGER spacecraft and manages this Discovery-class mission for NASA.

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