WEST LAFAYETTE Ind.
Although he typically shuns attention, former astronaut Neil Armstrong addressed a crowd at Saturday’s wind-swept dedication of a new engineering building named for him at Purdue University, his alma mater.
In a brief speech outside the new Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, the first man to walk on the moon shifted the focus from himself to the building, saying faculty not the building’s name will make it valuable to students.
“We dedicate this building today, but by itself, it cannot impart knowledge. It requires people,” Armstrong, 77, told a crowd of about 350 who gathered for the dedication.
Armstrong, who graduated from Purdue in 1955 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, gained international fame when the Eagle, Apollo 11’s lunar module, landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. NASA chose Armstrong to descend a ladder and leave the first lunar footprints.
In the decades since, Armstrong has never been as visible as Buzz Aldrin, who followed him out of the Eagle and onto the lunar surface, said James Hansen, an Auburn University professor.
Hansen, who authored Armstrong’s 2005 autobiography, said Armstrong understands his fame, but he’s always been a bit uncomfortable with it because it was somewhat coincidental.
“It’s because he was the first,” Hansen said. “He’s embarrassed about that a little bit because he and Buzz landed at the same time. For various reasons, he was the one selected to go down the ladder first.”
Sixteen of Purdue’s 22 graduates who became astronauts attended Saturday’s dedication, including Gene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon in Apollo 17’s December 1972 lunar visit.
Jerry Ross, another Purdue grad who became an astronaut, said Armstrong has kept his modesty despite his accomplishment and his famous first words on the moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“He’s very common,” Ross said. “Not in the sense that he’s plain, but in the sense that he’s in touch with normal human beings, even though he has done some extraordinary things.”
During his speech, Armstrong reflected on his college days at Purdue and told the gathering a few jokes, drawing laughs.
“We were introduced to formidable engineering curriculum and a very large number of classroom hours classes in differential equations and thermodynamics,” he said. “We didn’t know what those words meant, but we thought it sounded exciting.”
Purdue’s new $53.2 million, 210,000-square-foot engineering research and education building is also a space museum of sorts. The 53-foot-high atrium houses a replica of the Apollo 1 command module that fellow Purdue alumni Roger Chaffee and Virgil “Gus” Grissom died in along with Ed White when a fire swept the astronauts module during a January 1967 launch pad test.
Chaffee, whose widow, Martha Chaffee, attended the dedication, is honored with a curving, 50-foot-long exhibit near the atrium that will house a photomural of his life.
A bronze sculpture of Armstrong as a young college student was unveiled Friday near the building’s main entrance. It depicts his right hand resting on a stack of books as he gazes toward a set of footprints similar to those he later left on the moon.
Armstrong said he hopes more Purdue graduates will follow his example and remember their school when they succeed.
“It is my hope that they have the same affection for Purdue in this building when they are my age that I have for this university,” he said.
Tom Farris, the head of Purdue’s school of aeronautics and astronautics, said it’s important for Purdue to have a tangible connection with Armstrong and his accomplishment.
“I think the accepting of the responsibility of President Kennedy’s call to send a man to the moon and return him to Earth safely was a great American challenge. Mr. Armstrong embodied that,” Farris said. “It’s great to inspire our current students with that connection.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com