Belfast Telegraph

A giant leap for an 'Ulsterman'... tributes to Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who was first to walk on the moon

Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong

By Maureen Coleman

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was an archetypical Ulster Scot who had a massive impact on mankind’s development.

That’s according to Lord Laird who has led local tributes to the pioneering spaceman after he died at the age of 82.

Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, had suffered complications from heart surgery earlier this month, his family said.

The former Nasa astronaut famously uttered the quote moments after setting foot on the lunar surface: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Lord Laird said Armstrong was one of the most important Ulster Scots or Scots Irish in the 20th century and praised the spaceman's “massive impact” on the development of mankind.

“It is with pride that we in the Ulster Scots community consider the life and achievement of space pioneer Neil Armstrong,” he said. “He was an archetypical Ulster Scot — not publicity seeking but very hard-working and always seeking to improve mankind's understanding of things around them.”

He explained the spaceman’s links with Ulster: “Armstrong is a ‘border reiver’ name which comes from the west side of the debatable land mostly between Carlisle and Dumfries.

“The Armstrongs came to Fermanagh in the early 17th century during the Plantation of Ulster. Many of that surname still live there today.”

Lord Laird that that although Armstrong's direct ancestors had been teachers in the Enniskillen area — and that his grandfather had allegedly taught in a school on the Tempo Road — he didn't think the astronaut ever visited Northern Ireland himself.

As tributes poured in from around the world, well-known names in Northern Ireland also shared memories of watching Armstrong’s touch-down on the moon’s surface in 1969.

Good Vibrations record label boss Terri Hooley was in his late teens. He said: “I remember it well, I was sitting at home with my mum and dad, watching it on the television.

“There was a lot of excitement about it, and in the run-up to the actual event. I was quite interested in the whole space thing at the time and remember thinking that this was it, this was the start of space travel and we'd all be doing it soon,” he said.

“There were lots of conspiracy theories at the time, that it never really happened and was filmed in a studio, but I didn't believe them.”

Former Northern Ireland international footballer and Sky Sports commentator Gerry Armstrong said he could recall the moon landing well and that he felt a sense of pride, as a child, at sharing the same surname with the world-famous astronaut.

“I didn't really know much about space, apart from what I'd read in comic books or seen in sci-fi movies, but I do remember, as a child growing up in Belfast, that this was something pretty special,” he said.

“My dad told me that Armstrong had links with Tyrone and that's where my family is from. I just remember being really proud we had the same

name. I watched it all unfold at my granny's house and was very well aware that this was a moment in history. No-one knew what to expect.

“What I also remember about Armstrong was that he always came across as a humble man, who shied away from publicity, despite his huge fame.”

U105 presenter Frank Mitchell says he was more excited at watching an actual TV than Armstrong's first steps on the moon.

“We didn't have a television at the time so had gone round to a neighbour's to watch it. I was aware of the excitement of the older people in the room, but couldn't say I was enthralled. I was more excited about the fact that I was watching TV.”

Frank said his favourite Neil Armstrong story had come courtesy of the late comic Frank Carson.

He said: “I remember Frank joking that Armstrong had asked him the best way to the moon. Frank said 'well, if you're going to go up, make sure you go up at night'.”

His small step left huge imprint for future generations

By Peter Bond

Few people leave such a lasting imprint on human history that they are raised to the status of immortality, but, much to his distaste, Neil Armstrong was one of that select band.

His televised exploits during one week in July 1969 elevated him above his fellow astronauts and test pilots to the rank of superhero.

The wheel of fortune decreed that Armstrong was in exactly the right place at the right time, but he had earned the right to rewrite the history books by becoming the first man to walk on the Moon.

His entire life leading up this ultimate challenge had been characterised by a single-minded search for knowledge and a solitary pursuit of perfection. In 1962, he became Nasa's first civilian astronaut as one of nine successful applicants from the 300 who applied to join the space agency's second astronaut group. “Space is the frontier,” Armstrong told a fellow pilot. “And that's where I intend to go.”

And on 20 July, 1969, a worldwide TV audience of 500m watched as Armstrong's ghostly figure slid down the ladder. His slow motion jump on to the lunar surface culminated in the immortal words: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

After the excitement of Apollo 11, the most famous man in the world was given a desk job, as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at Nasa headquarters in Washington DC.

Having fulfilled his duty to the agency, Armstrong sought sanctuary in the relative anonymity of an academic life. In 1971 he left Nasa, bought a dairy farm in Ohio, and joined the engineering faculty of the University of Cincinnati. But Armstrong was unable to completely escape the attention of an adoring public. “A lot of people just wanted to touch him,” said University police chief Ed Bridgeman.

He suffered a heart attack in 1991, but recovered full fitness. He was operated on this month to relieve blocked coronary arteries, but died from complications. In 1994 he was divorced by first wife Janet, and shortly after married Carol Knight. He leaves two children, Eric and Mark. His daughter Karen died of a brain tumour in 1959.

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