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Neil Armstrong’s nerves of steel

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Early on, Neil Armstrong didn’t want to be an astronaut. From a young age, he wanted to design aircraft. He took up flying later because he thought a designer should know how planes work. He became a “stick-and-rudder man.”

NASA wanted Armstrong because, as a test pilot, he’d proven himself cool under pressure. That reasoning paid off during the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. A half-hour after docking with a satellite in a perfect maneuver that Armstrong called “a smoothie,” the spacecraft suddenly started tumbling end over end 200 miles over China. As both astronauts grew dizzier, Armstrong calmly tried a series of fixes, including undocking from the satellite, which actually made the situation much worse. Now rotating once a second, the astronauts nearly passed out.

Still, Armstrong kept his cool and tried shutting down the 16 thrusters used as rudders, then turned on other thrusters and manipulated them for a half-hour until he regained control of the ship and then safely guided it into the Pacific.

Later, an investigation showed that an electrical short had apparently jammed a thruster open at full power. By shutting down the thrusters, Armstrong saved Gemini 8.

Lesson: By learning your trade inside out and testing yourself regularly against increasingly tough challenges, you can develop not only expertise but also nerves of steel.

— Adapted from “The Man and the Moon,” Douglas Brinkley, American History.

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