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From The Vault: Neil Armstrong took giant leap from astronaut to University of Cincinnati professor

Watch his 1971 news conference
Posted at 8:09 AM, Jul 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-21 02:32:05-04

CINCINNATI — Al Schottelkotte, the legendary former WCPO news director, stood up at a packed news conference at the University of Cincinnati Faculty Club on Dec. 1, 1971 and asked the new professor of aerospace engineering about the subject that was on everyone’s mind.

“Professor, do you ever look up at the moon and have to wonder whether your experience really did happen?” Schottelkotte asked.

Neil Armstrong, sitting alone at a table facing the large gathering of media, hesitated to answer as if he were about to surrender a secret.

“I look up pretty frequently at the moon, as a matter of fact,” Armstrong said. “I still find it difficult to believe that we were successfully able to carry these flights off. But I’ve convinced myself.”

That was the only time during the 25-minute news conference that The First Man To Walk On The Moon made any reference to the history he had made two years before – and exactly 50 years ago Saturday night.

WATCH Armstrong answer Schottelkotte's question here:

Always the reluctant hero, the humble and cordial Armstrong would have passed for a brilliant engineer (which he was) or a scholarly professor (he was that, too).

WATCH the video of the entire news conference in the main player above (pardon the 5-second break).

Armstrong spoke openly about what he saw in the future for the American space program and made bold predictions as to when the U.S. would launch its first manned flight to Mars.

He said it would be possible to make a Mars landing by the turn of the century, but alluded to possible political or economic forces that might delay that.

Watch Armstrong talk about the prospect of man landing on Mars:

Question: “What do you feel is the future of the American space program?”

Armstrong: “I am a pilot not a prophet, but I would guess that space explorations are here to stay. It becomes a part of our lives and will continue to be so for the rest of the human experience, and I suspect it will be cyclical like many other technology-oriented kinds of activities since it’s involved with the economy to some extent. Those factors are going to make it cyclical. I think it’s nearing its bottom at the present time. I would expect to see a resurgence when various factors that influence the size of its activity are compounded in such a way that forces will be driving it in another direction.”

When Armstrong spoke, American astronauts has made four lunar landings, including two that very year. But they would make only two more before the program was scrubbed.

Question: "Do you foresee in this century man landing on Mars?"

Armstrong: “Again, you’re asking me to prophesize. These isn’t anything right now in a technical sense that would keep us from successfully completing a manned Martian landing.”

Question: “Wouldn’t it take eight or nine months? Can we maintain life that long?”

Armstrong: “It certainly would require that we demonstrate the ability to keep the equipment and men both running for a much longer period of time than we’ve demonstrated up to the present time, but there’s no technical reason why that isn’t possible. So it’s really only a matter of will and resources – justification. My own guess is there’s a good chance – an even chance – that those kind of forces will all be positive in the same direction some time between now and the end of the century and we’d launch such an expedition ... We or some other country.”

The Wapakoneta, Ohio, native discussed why he left NASA and why, out of 1,000 or so reported job offers, he took the giant leap to UC.

After Apollo 11, Armstrong had become a high-level administrator at NASA. But he said if he wasn’t going to get another space mission, he wanted to get started on his second career.

“You try to look out to see what you actually want to achieve in the long term and you come up with a conclusion. In my case, it wasn’t a single factor. It was just that the time was right and I felt that if I could not make that move it would be increasingly difficult to do so as I became older,” said Armstrong, who was 41 when he came to UC.

“There were a very few number of flights left that didn’t already have assigned crews and I suspect that had I stayed with NASA there might be some chance as I approached 50 years or so I’d have another shot at it, but the odds were such that it looked like that would preclude my establishing a second career,” he said.

As for why he picked UC over 1,000 other offers, the Clifton campus was a good fit for the Ohio native, both in terms of teaching and research. And UC gave him carte blanche.

“I don’t know whether 1,000 is right. I never made any count on that,” Armstrong said. “The principal attraction was the opportunity to work in a field I had long admired and do it sort of at my own speed and in the areas of interest that I’ve developed over the course of years, so it was really the sort of freedom that was the big attraction.”

UC was nationally recognized in aerospace engineering with one of the country’s oldest programs, started in 1929, and the country's first co-op program. Orville Wright had been consulted in setting up the curriculum, according to a UC Magazine article.

UC also had a graduate program, the Institute of Space Sciences, and offered federally funded research in rocket propulsion, combustion and aerodynamics in its Center of Excellence in Propulsion.

Armstrong, who flew fighters off an aircraft carrier during the Korean War and was a test pilot before being America's first civilian astronaut, said he wanted to focus on "basic engineering related to transportation" and possibly branch out from that. He took a heavy teaching load, taught core classes and created two graduate-level classes: aircraft design and experimental flight mechanics.

Armstrong had experience teaching college students at his alma mater, Purdue University, so when a reporter asked if it might be difficult to “slide back into academia,” Armstrong responded with no apparent sarcasm.

“It probably is, but I think it’s worth a try,” he said.

Armstrong said he wasn’t worried that students would sign up for his classes just, as one reporter put it, "because of you."

“My classes … will require certain prerequisites and that will more or less restrict the courses to those who have serious interest in the subject,” Armstrong said.

Except for his answer to Schottelkotte, Armstrong never referred to July 20, 1969 in his brief opening statement or in response to any question.

That’s just the way he was. It’s not that he disliked or distrusted the media, he just didn’t want the fame or think he deserved it.

Calling Armstrong “one of the world’s few living heroes,” one reporter asked “is that a heavy burden to bear?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a heavy burden. It’s a case of inconvenience,” Armstrong said.

It apparently took UC officials three months to convince Armstrong to hold a news conference after announcing he was joining the faculty on Aug. 26.

Armstrong hadn’t started teaching classes yet, explaining that he had to spend a lot of time in Washington wrapping up his NASA job. He said he hoped his post at UC would be “permanent.”

"I really enjoyed teaching," Armstrong noted in a NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in 2001. "I love to teach. I love the kids, only they were smarter than I was, which made it a challenge."

Armstrong's students remembered him as an exceptional teacher, according to stories in UC Magazine. They described memorable moments when a vivacious Italian movie star visited Armstrong on campus, and when the former astronaut prepped for the annual paper airplane contest.

As the story went, NASA had sent the Apollo 11 crew on a worldwide goodwill tour after the moon landing. In Italy, they met actress Gina Lollobrigida. But Armstrong was shocked when she showed up on campus in 1974 looking for him. Ladies' Home Journal had recruited Lollobrigida to do a photoshoot of Armstrong.

One of Armstrong’s students, Ralph Spitzen, said he was taking pictures at the paper airplane contest that same year when Armstrong stopped by the Armory Fieldhouse. To enter the contest, students would fold a paper plane, toss it from the top rows of seats and see how far it would fly across the gym.

Spitzen took pictures of Armstrong making a paper plane, but he didn’t fly it.

"It shows you that he was as down to earth as any of the rest of us," said Spitzen, who took four classes with Armstrong.

"Because of the variety of his flight experiences, he was able to relate different engineering problems and help us appreciate the translation of concepts into the real world," Spitzen said.

Armstrong didn't give another news conference at UC until the 10th anniversary of his moon landing on July 20, 1979.

Armstrong taught at UC for eight years, resigning on Jan. 1, 1980.

"I stayed in that job longer than any job I'd ever had up to that point, but I decided it was time for me to go on and try some other things," he said later.

In 1986, President Reagan made Armstrong vice chairman of the commission investigating the Challenger explosion.

Armstrong continued to live in Indian Hill and took on other space projects while serving on the boards of several major companies and foundations.

He was 82 when he died on Aug. 25, 2012.

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