As told to Kevin Nguyen by Francesco Caprio
On July 20, 1969, America accomplished its single greatest technological achievement of all time, when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. It’s important to acknowledge that Apollo 11’s Moon landing, occurring 8 years after President John F. Kennedy audacious challenge to the nation of landing a human on the moon by the end of the 1960’s was the culmination of more than a decade of work by thousands of people across dozens of science, technologies and engineering disciplines. President Kennedy further pronounced to a nation in recession, “We choose to go to the moon… because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
As astronaut, pilot and decorated Korean War Naval Aviator veteran, Neil Armstrong spoke his famous quote “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” to over 600 million world-wide viewers, this noteworthy statement profoundly demonstrated what this nation can do with unified work effort and initiative. President Obama stated in memoriam to Armstrong, “Neil was among the greatest of American heroes–not just of his time, but of all time. When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable–that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”
On the anniversary of this landmark historical moment, Working World’s cover photographer Francesco Caprio, proudly shares with our readers some interesting tidbits from his friendship and association with ground-breaking frontier astronaut Neil Armstrong.
K: First off, how did you and Neil Armstrong meet?
F.: In the 1980’s I was the set photographer at NBC for Bob Hope’s TV Specials. Neil was one of the guests for a show that was a tribute to NASA.
K.: Did meeting the first human on the Moon have an effect on your career/life?
F.: It had a huge impact on both. I always had a passion for space exploration, and when Neil walked on the Moon, he became my main role model. Later, I named my son Neil In Armstrong’s honor.
K.: What qualities did Neil have that you think people in the work place would find useful for success?
F.: He had a terrific work ethic. He was dependable, and had a can-do attitude. We all know about Neil’s walk on the Moon, but few of us think of all the hard work that came before that. It took a lot of determination to stick it out and stay with the unbelievably rigorous training at NASA that he went through. Neil had plenty of setbacks along the way. Several times he almost lost his life, but he persisted and achieved one goal after another. And as they say, ‘the rest is history.’
K.: Did meeting him make you want to be an astronaut? I read somewhere that you had tried to get on the 1986 Challenger flight that blew up not long after takeoff.
F.: True. I had always wanted to be an astronaut, and when civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe was going to be on-board the Challenger, I thought I might have a chance to become part of the crew. In the planning stages of the flight, I went to Kodak and got an executive there to back the idea of sponsoring me as ‘the first photographer in space.’ Eventually, though, the higher-ups at Kodak turned down the proposal, and instead of being on that flight, I ended up covering the aftermath of the tragedy for Newsweek Magazine.
K.: Was there a defining moment that made you and Neil Armstrong close friends?
F.: It was more like a gradual process. In the beginning we would occasionally email each other, and then the emails never stopped for 20 years. But there was a special day that stood out – Neil pleasantly shocked me when he wrote, “I think it’s time I met your son. I’m flying down and taking the two of you to lunch.” I couldn’t believe it. I must have reread it a couple of times to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks! A few weeks before that email, Neil had been encouraging me to take my son to a launch of the shuttle at Cape Kennedy in Florida. I took his advice and my son and I flew down from New York and watched the last night launch of the shuttle. It’s an amazing experience to watch a launch. From three miles away we could feel the Earth trembling beneath our feet as the rocket lifted.
Not long after, Neil flew down and met my son and I at a restaurant on the upper eastside of Manhattan for brunch.
K.: Your son must have loved that.
F.: He did, but when he told his friends about it they thought he was hallucinating!
K.: Did Armstrong and you often talk about his walk on the Moon?
F.: For the most part we avoided talk of space. That’s what everyone else talked with him about. We kept our conversations personal or about things like sports. For example, he followed the teams at Purdue, his alma mater.
K.: What were some of Armstrong’s personality traits?
F.: Low-key, earnest, humble, honest, good eye contact, focused, and dedicated to excellence.
K.: Tell us about a time you two had a disagreement, if any, and how you two overcame it to remain good friends.
F.: Nothing like that ever came up. There was only a friendly rivalry in sports – how his school, Purdue, did compared to mine – the University of Maryland.
K.: Did you ever get any insight from Armstrong about the 1969 flight to the Moon that not many people know about?
F.: When my son and I had lunch with Neil, he told my son that as the Apollo 11 rocket was lifting off, the crew had expected to be communicating with the control room, but the noise was louder than expected and no one could hear anything!
K.: Neil was known as the ‘Greta Garbo of the astronauts in that he was extremely private. Why do you think he opened up to you?
F.: Once, and only once, he asked about keeping his personal life private, and I assured him, ‘That’s the way it is now, and that’s the way it will always be.’ Neil patted me on the back and said, ‘I know that’s the case, and I’m sorry I had to ask.’ It never came up again. I think we remained such good friends because of the mutual trust.
K.: What was a passion he had besides space?
F.: He loved to fly. Instead of taking commercial flights, Neil and his wife Carol used to take a small plane and fly to vacation spots. Buzz (Aldrin) described Neil as one of the best pilots he ever knew.
K.: Can you think of another joy in his life?
F.: He loved his grandchildren, and spent quite a bit of time with them.
K.: When was the last time you spoke to him before his passing?
F.: We had emailed each other about a week before he died in his native Ohio. I told Neil I was temporarily moving to San Diego, and he told me it brought back memories of when he had spent time there when he was about 20.
K.: From your knowledge of Armstrong, how do you remember him?
F.: To the world he was the ‘first human to walk on the Moon.’ But to me, he was one of my best friends, and I miss him.
K.: How do you think the world should remember Neil Armstrong?
F.: I’d love to see Neil’s birthday, August 5th, become a national holiday. He inspired us in so many ways. Neil taught by example – follow your passion, be willing to take risks, dedicate yourself to being your best, be humble…there are so many strengths that he personified. And for the younger generation out there I would say, ‘If you’re looking for an inspirational role model, you can’t do better than to study the life of Neil Armstrong.’