Logo: University of Southern California

"He was more than a hero to us"

SUMMER OF '69: Professor James Moore on the passing of Neil Armstrong, his boyhood idol from Auglaize County, Ohio
James Moore
August 28, 2012 —

Said Professor James Moore: "I remember that the moment I watched televised images of the LEM ascent stage take off from the surface of the moon, I chose a profession."

Neil Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta is the seat of Auglaize County, Ohio, where I grew up. New Bremen, Ohio was a town of perhaps 1,500 when I lived there. He was more than a hero to us because his behavior made it clear he was fundamentally one of us. He reacted to the attention he was receiving the way we all hoped we would in the same circumstances: with quiet responsibility and courtesy. His capacity to allow us to imagine the best in ourselves made him revered.

July of 1969 was the summer between the fifth and sixth grade for me. I must have been almost 11. My father was an engineer, and my mother was a teacher. They and my younger sisters were transfixed the evening of July 20th in front of a black and white television, watching the clearest of the three channels we could receive — WHIO Channel 7 broadcasting out of Dayton. I remember riding my bicycle from our home to the Dairy Queen drive-in to pick up hamburgers, French fries and milkshakes so that my mother would not have to cook. We could all watch together. I made it there and back home in record time; I did not want to miss anything. We ate in the living room to watch TV, something we almost never did.

I remember much concern that the Lunar Excursion Model’s (LEM) descent stage might sink when it landed; that the dust might be so powdery it would flow like a fluid; that they might settle into an attitude that would make it impossible for the ascent stage to take off, or that they might inadvertently excavate a void as they were trying to land. It was all wild conjecture from the commentators. In retrospect, Mission Control must have been worried about a thousand real technical concerns. As I look back, I cannot imagine going into space with vacuum tubes and slide rules in an apparatus whose parts were machined without the precision provided by CNC tools.

My father, who was ex-military, had graduated from Annapolis in the same class as my mother’s brother. I remember the way he held my hand and told me how happy he was that my vision was so poor. It meant I would never be a Navy pilot. Years later, I understood he wanted me to grasp the magnitude of the risks Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were taking. He told me I could still be part of it all, that the astronauts were also engineers, and that the people in Houston keeping them alive were engineers. I remember the way my parents were looking at each other in utter amazement and pride at what was possibly the happiest national moment any of us would ever know. I remember that the moment I watched televised images of the LEM ascent stage take off from the surface of the moon, I chose a profession.

My parents changed jobs and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in in 1977. I had enrolled in advance of the move at the School of Engineering at University of Cincinnati to conserve tuition, spend an additional year with family, and because Neil Armstrong had joined the faculty. His background was my introduction to the University of Southern California, where Armstrong did his graduate work in Aerospace Engineering.

I won a registration lottery and took an engineering science course (NAPOM, Nature and Property of Materials) from Armstrong in the winter of 1978. The class was so large they had to move it to the Patricia Corbett Theater. He was all business at the lectern, but a clear and effective instructor.

I eventually transferred to Northwestern and graduated, and then went on to Stanford. I returned to Northwestern as a faculty member in the fall of 1986. In December of 1987, I had a call from USC asking if I would consider visiting for a semester in Los Angeles, with the possibility of a subsequent hiring decision. I was torn. At the time, Northwestern was the better institution, but I loved California. Then I remembered Neil Armstrong had chosen USC, and allowed his example to guide me once more. It guides me still.

— James Moore is vice dean for academic affairs and a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.