What Neil Armstrong said to the Australian accountant
Alex Malley knows his stuff when it comes to accounting – he, is after all, chief executive of Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia.
But this bean counter also knows how to get a great story and could teach journalists a thing or two.
A year ago he managed to get possibly the last interview with the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, before his death last weekend at the age of 82.
His coup was all the more remarkable because Armstrong was a notoriously private man, who was once described by former NASA spokesman Dave Garrett as “a recluse’s recluse.”
“Howard Hughes had nothing on him, “ he said.
So how did Alex get his global scoop?
Simple really – he knew that the astronaut’s father was an auditor and traded on that connection to get to see him in the US.
Over lunch in a small town “somewhere in Ohio” he persuaded the legendary astronaut to fly to Australia for a video interview about the historic mission.
“We struck up a great rapport,” Mr Malley told NBR ONLINE, “and I got to see the most wonderful personality.
“There was still a wonderful child in the man and he was truly an inspirational figure.
“It was a rare moment and a rare privilege.”
In an extensive and probing interview with Mr Malley, Neil Armstrong revealed how he thought his Apollo 11 mission only had a 50 per cent chance of landing safely on the moon.
“A month before the launch of Apollo 11 we decided we were confident enough we could try an attempt on a descent to the surface,” he said.
“I thought we had a 90 per cent chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight but only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on the first attempt.
“There are so many unknowns on that descent from lunar orbit down to the surface that had not been demonstrated yet by testing.
“And there was a big chance that there was something in there we didn’t understand properly and we had to abort and come back to Earth without landing.”
Mr Armstrong says when he and Buzz Aldrin descended on board the Eagle to the moon’s surface, the on-board computer was intent on putting them down on the side of a large crater littered with huge boulders.
“Not a good place to land at all,” he said. “I took it over manually and flew it like a helicopter out to the west direction, took it to a smoother area without so many rocks and found a level area and was able to get it down there before we ran out of fuel.
“There was something like 20 seconds of fuel left.”
Asked whether he had time to think about what he was going to say upon landing he said: “I didn’t think of the words because I had no confidence in our ability to get down safely.”
Once on the moon Mr Armstrong, who was then aged 38, said there was little time to spend reflecting on where he was because there was too much work to do.
One of his major concerns was the temperature of the lunar surface, which was well over the boiling point of water.
“The heat on the surface could affect fluids in the systems on the lunar module adversely and we were going to have to get out of there quickly (if this happened).
“So there were these concerns but everything seemed to work out satisfactorily.”
One of his first tasks was to commemorate America’s rivals in space – the Soviet Union.
“We recognised we wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for our competition with the Soviet Union.
“It was actually the competition that made both of our programmes able to do the things that they achieved.
“So we recognised that by putting some medallions for our fallen comrades on both sides who had not lived to see the event.
“That was a tender moment,” he said.
After 21 hours on the moon there were some anxious moments when it came to lifting off in the Eagle to return to the command module, which was orbiting above them.
Buzz Aldrin’s cumbersome space suit bumped into a circuit breaker that controlled the module’s engine and with no engine they would be marooned on the moon.
“We were worried about the circuit breaker disengaging,” Mr Armstrong said, “so we took a piece of plastic pen and made a little crutch to hold it in place.”
The rest, as they say is history, and Messrs Armstrong and Aldrin rejoined Michael Collins in the command module and safely returned to Earth.
The astronaut told accountant Alex Malley that it was “sad” the current US government’s ambitions for NASA were so modest compared to what had been achieved in the 1960s.
“NASA has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve,” he said.
“It’s sad that we are turning the programme in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people.
“I’m substantially concerned about the policy directions of the space agency which are directed by the administration.
“We have a situation in the States where the White House and the Congress are at odds over what the future direction should be and they’re playing a game.
“NASA is the shuttlecock they’re hitting back and forth as both sides try to get NASA on the proper path.”
As a child Mr Armstrong said he had “become fascinated with the world of flight as an elementary school student and determined that somehow I wanted to be involved in that.”
He served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, flying 78 missions, and was working as a test pilot when President Kennedy challenged US scientists to put a man on the moon.
At the time America had only managed to send Alan Sheppard 100 miles above the surface of the Earth for 20 minutes.
“Now the president was challenging us to go to the moon,” said Mr Armstrong.
“The gap between a 20 minute up and down flight and going to the moon was almost something beyond belief technically.”
But despite being taken aback at such a prospect, Mr Armstrong went on to become the first man on the moon in 1969, uttering the immortal words: ”One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The moon landing made him an instant hero, a status that he was most uncomfortable with.
“I guess we all like to be recognised not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work,” he told CBS 60 Minutes in 2005.
On another occasion he was asked how he felt knowing his footprints would most likely remain on the moon’s surface for thousands of years, to which he replied:
“I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up.”
The moon mission turned out to be his last space flight and he was appointed NASA’s deputy associate administrator for aeronautics in the office of advanced research and technology.
A year later he left NASA to become professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
Over the ensuing years he shunned most publicity, even to the extent of taking no major roles in ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the moon landing.
His humility is something that Alex Malley remembers only too well.
“This is such an extraordinary story of courage, leadership and humility and he was horrified that everything was focused on him.
“He kept telling me it was a team effort and it was only by chance that he was the first person on the moon.
“You don’t see that sort of attitude anymore - I mean he went to the moon and back with less technology than a mobile.
“I think today we’ve lost the vision and we’ve lost the courage of men like him.
“When I got news of his death the other day it was like I lost my grandfather.”
To see Mr Malley’s extraordinary interview with Neil Armstrong visit this website: http://thebottomline.cpaaustralia.com.au/