Interview with Rick Armstrong

Engility is the Character Sponsor for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation 2017 Innovator’s Gala; this year, the gala will feature the inaugural Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence presentation. The award will be given to an Astronaut Scholar Alumni who exemplifies personal character, professional achievement, and impact in their field. In honor of the award’s first year, we sat down with Rick Armstrong, Neil Armstrong’s son and advocate for space education and scholarship.

On Neil Armstrong’s interest in education:

Education was always very important to [my father], and aeronautical engineering was his primary interest, so it was a natural fit for him to become a professor after his time at NASA. He was a very patient person and I believe that he really enjoyed interacting with students. I can say that he spent many hours helping me with my math problems when I was in school - he wanted to be sure that I understood exactly how to solve the problem - even when I just wanted the answer so I could go out and play!

On Armstrong’s assertion that he considered himself “an engineer first”:

[My dad] said of himself, "I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.” When we were working on creating the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Neil Armstrong award, we were looking to recognize an Astronaut Scholar Alumni who had done some amazing work as well as demonstrated qualities that I think would have been important to Dad. If you asked the nominees whether they think like engineers, they would probably ask you to more specifically define what that means, as any engineer would!

On whether or not Armstrong considered the moon walk the greatest professional achievement of his career:

I think the moon landing (as opposed to walking) would certainly have been on his short list – I believe he said something about pilots being more interested in landing than walking around. I know he held his time in the X-15 program in very high regard as well [Armstrong worked closely with the engineering team on development of the X-15 adaptive system, and made seven flights in the rocket plane from December 1960 through July 1962]. I would say that he thought of these as team accomplishments rather than personal achievements.

The applicant criteria for the ASF award is rigorous - integrity, perseverance, critical thinking, intellectual daring, and a passion for exploration are all listed as character traits that your father demonstrated. On something about his father’s life that would surprise people who didn’t know him well:

My father served on quite a number of corporate boards, but did not want to be a “figurehead” member. His expectation was that he would be a working member like everyone else. He often had board responsibilities that surprised me; for example, he often served on the finance committee. He was able to take his engineering mentality and apply it to other areas.

Dad also read extensively and was very knowledgeable in a great many subjects. I would also say that he wasn’t afraid to admit that he didn’t know much about whatever the topic of the conversation was, if that was the case.