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April 23, 2008 3:42 PM   Subscribe

If you could ask Neil Armstrong any question, what would it be?

Not interested in moon-hoax conspiracy nonsense, or anything else that might get me punched in the nose. Also helpful would be general subjects of conversation which might lead to/prompt some interesting insight into his character that I couldn't get from a Wikipedia page or straight-up biography. I'm already familiar with his entire life story, and don't want to ask the same old "how did it feel to be on the moon?" question.

He is famously reserved and it would be nice to have things to discuss that would both break the ice and give me a sense of who he really is.

I know he's a mortal like anyone else but I sometimes get stage fright when speaking with famous people I admire.

Thank you!
posted by np312 to Society & Culture (48 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'd be interested in hearing his take whether space travel in general is worth funding when you consider the countless other potentially more immediately helpful ways that government funding may be used for this planet. You may be able to think of a more tactful way to ask this question, however.

What does he think of space tourism?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:49 PM on April 23, 2008

Best answer: Well, don't be nervous. He blew his big moon landing line on account of 'stage fright'. It was supposed to be, "That's one small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind."

Only don't bring that up to him, I'm only offering advice so you don't get nervous asking him your question.

Ask him what's on his Ipod.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:50 PM on April 23, 2008

I'd be interested in knowing how seriously he takes our current administration's plans for the future of space exploration. I know I was shocked at how 'gung-ho' President Bush seemed about going back to the Moon and then to Mars. I've had my doubts, and they are amplified as this term is running out without much change. Does he think this is just an effort to win over the scientific community or is it a real policy.
posted by Science! at 3:58 PM on April 23, 2008

If he could walk on the face of the Moon again, what would he want as his Optimal Meal that would be waiting for him in the Lunar Lander?

This might open him up, talking about his favorite foods, about how much the food sucked, or what wines go best with a lunar ramble. After watching In the Shadow of the Moon (which he declined to participate in) this weekend, I know I'd want to know. I mean, I can't rake leaves without pining for a hearty chowder, so can barely imagine the right meal to follow walking on the Moon.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:03 PM on April 23, 2008

Ask him what advice he'll have for the first person to step on Mars. But don't ask him about Mr. Gorsky.
posted by paulsc at 4:03 PM on April 23, 2008

I don't know if it's been addressed elsewhere, but if not, one good question might be to ask him why he's so private, considering the landmark status of his accomplishments and the ability to use those accomplishments as a lever for many things.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 4:04 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

np312, I don't have a specific question to suggest, but here's a great love poem that might spin your brain in unconventional ways:

Mike McGee - Open Letter to Neil Armstrong (MP3)
posted by Sfving at 4:04 PM on April 23, 2008

(Armstrong does not suffer fools gladly, nor does he enjoy exercise. His loathing of the intense physical training for space work is legendary...)
So ask him, after all these years, if he's changed his mind about how "We only have a finite number of heartbeats before we die, so why waste them with sit-ups and jumping-jacks," (my paraphrase) with the knowledge that exercise can REDUCE one's heart rate...
posted by Dizzy at 4:06 PM on April 23, 2008

His biography, First Man, is a really good read and addresses a couple of the questions already posed, especially about continuing to fund space exploration (absolutely) and his privacy (hates the limelight).

Also Buzz Aldrin really comes across as an ass.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:20 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Do you ever Google yourself?" Even though that question could probably steer the conversation into some ugly territories, if he does. But it could also lead to some interesting follow up questions about his legacy, his integrety and his secretiveness, in a roundabout way. Maybe.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 4:22 PM on April 23, 2008

Also helpful would be general subjects of conversation which might lead to/prompt some interesting insight into his character that I couldn't get from a Wikipedia page or straight-up biography.

In the interest of starting conversation, I would be begin talking about what rough morning I had, how the alarm didn't go off and I almost had to skip breakfast and then "Oh, what do you usually eat for breakfast?" and then talk about a made up morning ritual and then ask what he does to get himself going through the day. That way a conversation is started about other things.


If Armstrong is private, then he may not enjoy talking about himself. In that case, I would read up about him and find out what sorta hobbies does he enjoy. If he's into math, I'd ask him to help with somewhat complex math problem or if he enjoyed a particular era of history I'd bone up on that.

All of these things would be to put him at ease, talking about something he enjoys and then, once he's relaxed I'd slowly ask a few of the questions I'd have been dying to ask.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:25 PM on April 23, 2008

He maybe The Neil Armstrong but he is first a 78 years old man.
I wouldn't bother him with any kind of technical question.
He is (was) first an engineer, so maybe he is up to date on aerospace engineering (the space elevator?) but maybe not.
He has never been a great communicator.
Basically, NoraCharles is right: your slim chance to find an opening is to find a topic that interests him: music, movies, red wine, gardening, football, whatever.
Don't think about his greatness: it's embarassing. Talk to him as if he was your grandfather: with respect and a touch of humor.
posted by bru at 4:26 PM on April 23, 2008

And yes, if I had previewed: waht BB said.
posted by bru at 4:28 PM on April 23, 2008

Ask him what his favourite three novels are and why.
posted by fire&wings at 4:28 PM on April 23, 2008

How/if he thinks the world is better off now that men have been on the moon? I mean, it's not as if we're using the ability to go to the moon for anything.

I understand technology spin-offs from the space program. I mean actually physically being on the moon.
posted by ctmf at 4:30 PM on April 23, 2008

Best answer: 1. What did you like best about NASA?
2. What did you like least about NASA?
3. What is the one thing you would have changed about it if you could have?
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:42 PM on April 23, 2008

are would you like to have been in buzz' place when he got to knock out a douche with a bible or is it still just him who would have liked to change places with you at some point in your lives?
posted by krautland at 4:43 PM on April 23, 2008

I used to live in Wapakoneta, Ohio. And the story there was that he had refused all acknowledgment (Would not attend a parade in his honor after the moon landing), and still had no ties to the museum that bears his name in that town. Always kind of wondered why that was.
posted by JonnyRotten at 4:45 PM on April 23, 2008

Best answer: 1) Mr Armstrong, your first step on the moon was the culmination of an astounding collective effort by the people of the United States, on an unmatched scale, to achieve the seemingly impossible. If our leaders of today could inspire Americans to undertake a concerted effort of that scale again, what would you choose for it to be?

2) Do you still enjoy flying?

3) Would you go for a ride on the Shuttle if they asked?

4) Would you go on a no-return mission to Mars if they asked?

5) What was your opinion of the X-Prize competition? How will history judge Bert Rutan's achievement?
posted by popechunk at 5:12 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe he won't answer this but if things are going well, I might ask him near the end of the interview: "Do you like looking up at the moon? What do you think about when you see it? Do you think to yourself, 'hey, I was right about ... there' or is it just, you know, the moon?"

I'd also like to know if he got to keep a moon rock for himself but this is almost certainly something you could find out ahead of time rather than asking him. If he did get to keep a moon rock, I'd ask him if he ever takes it out and looks at it ... if that's something that he still marvels at or if the thrill in that is long gone.

These are very softball questions but they are the ones I'm curious about, in addition to the other very good ones that others before me have suggested.
posted by Kangaroo at 5:16 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you had died on the way back, would it nonetheless have been worth it?
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:16 PM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Everyone asks him about Apollo 11, for obvious reasons. So I'd ask him about Gemini 8 and the serious problems he and Dave Scott encountered on that mission. It was the most serious threat to an American spacecraft experienced to that point in the programs.

Either that, or I'd ask him about the X-15 program.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:21 PM on April 23, 2008

I would ask him if seeing Earth from that distance has changed his perspective on human affairs or on life in general in any way, and that, if it has, how he thinks society would be affected by making space travel a more common experience. See this list of astronaut quotes I dug up awhile back for the kind of attitude shift I mean.

I once read that establishing a permanent lunar base would cause great changes in the mindsets of people around the world -- that looking up at the moon and thinking "Gee, there are people living and working up there" would encourage society to expand its perspective beyond Earth and the possibility of someday spreading to other planets. This sounded right to me, but hey, I've never had an experience like that. Seeing what Armstrong thinks about all this would be interesting.
posted by Rhaomi at 5:25 PM on April 23, 2008

Ask him about the smell of moon dust.
posted by hortense at 5:34 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's a bit of a cheat, but there's the possibility of meta-questions.

What interview question do you wish you were asked, but that no-one ever seems to ask you?

What was your favourite question from an interviewer?

...and so forth. It draws attention to the artificiality of the interview process, and puts you both on the same side with regards to it.
posted by Paragon at 5:35 PM on April 23, 2008

If you were asking, in effect, "If you could ask any one question of Neil Armstrong, what would it be?", that motivates rather particular queries -- discounted by the probability of getting an answer from him.

If you instead want to get to know the real Neil, as your post also suggests, that suggests a different approach, and one focused on getting him just to speak to you. Ideally, you'd want the second tack to set up the first, but it isn't clear to me how long you might possibly be chatting with him. If you stick with the latter, more power to you, but I seriously doubt you're going to get too much out of him . . . and it would be a shame to have a brush with greatness and to ask him the same kind of questions you might ask your taciturn uncle.

How about: "What do you think your life would have been like if there hadn't been a moon, or if we hadn't yet been able to put people into space?"

Riskier: "In your heart or in your head, do you think there's other intelligent life out there?"
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 5:42 PM on April 23, 2008

I'd likely skip the whole moon thing, and I'd be tempted to skip the whole space thing entirely. Honestly I'd probably ask him what kind of beer he drinks.
posted by Skorgu at 5:51 PM on April 23, 2008

Best answer: "What's the coolest thing you've done since walking on the moon?" I mean, sure, in a sense, nothing could ever top that. But it's not like his life ended then. I'm sure there've been lots of highlights he never gets asked about.
posted by rikschell at 6:17 PM on April 23, 2008

Neil Armstrong has spoken here at Purdue numerous times. He has a great sense of humor. A student went up to him and asked him, "So what are you famous for?" He responded that he had played a little baseball in high school (or college-I can't remember exactly). But it got a good laugh.

This past fall they dedicated the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, and he made jokes about how they will name buildings after nerdy engineering students. I agree with Skorgu. Beer, sports, whatever.
posted by bolognius maximus at 6:23 PM on April 23, 2008

Boxers, or water-cooled nylon undergarments?
posted by bondcliff at 6:55 PM on April 23, 2008

I'd ask him about the overshoot on the landing. He seemed to have an incredible steely nerve as alarm after alarm went off due to some computer errors. The LM landed pretty far off the original landing site, but they got the job done and got on the Moon. I can't imgaine going that far and then aborting on the first planned landing flight.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:02 PM on April 23, 2008

I'd ask him if how he managed to put aside the (I would assume) inevitable thoughts about possibly not making it back, so he could get the job done.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:10 PM on April 23, 2008

Should we send people to Mars?
posted by LarryC at 7:11 PM on April 23, 2008

Well, the moon landing has been plumbed to death, and there is little you can ask on that topic that hasn't been described in detail elsewhere.

He's been an elite military pilot, an astronaut, a teacher, and a businessman. So there are three careers that have not been talked to death.

Does he have any opinions on how warfare has changed in the 50 years since Korea?

What is he doing in his retirement?

Is he a basketball fan? And which teams does he favor. What's his impression of how the game was played.

He was part of the investigative team for Apollo 13 and Challenger, what is his opinion of how NASA handles manned spaceflight today?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:23 PM on April 23, 2008

Nthing the idea that he sounds like a guy who is not terribly interested in talking about himself. So if you want a glimpse of him as a person, the way in is to talk about some topic other than him which interests him.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:52 PM on April 23, 2008

Ask him what he does when he's bored.

(I mean, think about it - high standards for a thrill ride, there!)
posted by bettafish at 8:27 PM on April 23, 2008

Ask him how the food was ...

... at the craft services table.

Not really. I suggest you do as so many others have suggested and ask him about something else and see where that gets you.

What's the context of the meeting? Maybe talk about that, instead.
posted by notyou at 8:44 PM on April 23, 2008


I think music and engineering are good topics.
What's your background, and what sort of interview will this be?
posted by lukemeister at 8:46 PM on April 23, 2008

As an engineer/educator, what does he think about the state of engineering (especially aero engineering) as a profession? Are colleges doing enough to prepare the next generation of engineers? What can industry do to attract and keep grads?
posted by yqxnflld at 9:01 PM on April 23, 2008

You'd have to word this carefully, but this is something I asked my SO today: If they hadn't launched the Space Program (or the Mars program or whatever), would young kids be as inspired to go into science for other reasons? Would we be able to inspire as many kids with deep sea missions or fire fighting science or something like that?
posted by acoutu at 9:56 PM on April 23, 2008

I'd likely skip the whole moon thing, and I'd be tempted to skip the whole space thing entirely. Honestly I'd probably ask him what kind of beer he drinks.

I agree with this and other similar advice. I nearly went into the space industry as a career, myself, and through a series of events both fortunate and not ended up doing the techy thing instead - and despite this, I would still be very interested in discussing non-space things with him.

You could start, maybe, by discussing the things he's done after 1969. It's been 39 years, which is longer than my lifetime, and it seems like he's been pretty busy. What he's most proud of, what's been exciting. I love the "what's your favourite beer?" (or something like that) question idea. What some of the best books he's read are.

He's been through some unbelievable situations; nearly shot down in Korea, accidentally bouncing off the atmosphere in a maxed-out X-15, nearly killed in a test run of a lunar lander, blah blah blah. I would feel out how the conversation was going, but you might want to ask something like, "so, did you get a reputation for getting out of near-death situation unscathed, or was it all in a day's work for a test pilot? Or were you just really, really damn lucky?"

I've also always wanted to ask him something like, "did you ever think, in those first few seconds after touchdown on the lunar surface, 'holy shit'?" But I don't think I would actually ask it.

You could also go for a question about recent developments in space exploration: "We've got things like the X-Prize these days to fund alternative ways to get into space - do you think that's the right way to get us back up there and in that same we-can-do-it mentality of the 60s space program? Do you think that's even going to happen anytime soon? Maybe with the Chinese program? Do you follow the Chinese moon program much?"

Sorry, this is a lot more than one question. I'm envious, and I'd also love to hear the answer to any one of these questions. I would probably go with the final, multi-part question if I only got one, in some sort of symposium-type setting; otherwise, I'd just love to have a drink with him and chat.

Please post a link when it's ready! And thank you for asking us this question.
posted by blacklite at 2:20 AM on April 24, 2008

Best answer: Ask him what he thinks of (fellow Ohioan, and space program contemporary) John Glenn returning to space as a senior citizen, and whether he'd jump at the chance to do the same for a hypothetical Mars mission, etc.
posted by availablelight at 5:59 AM on April 24, 2008

Your post inspired me to pick up First Man, which I bought on the remainder rack at Borders a few months ago. It's well worth reading or at least skimming.
posted by lukemeister at 6:40 AM on April 24, 2008

Second thought: I would ask him how he uses the Web.
In a way, it's a little like asking about beer or music, because it relates almost to everyone. But it can open other avenues of conversation.
I would even tell him about MetaFilter and about this thread (maybe he'd want to read it) and ask him if he is part of other online communities.
posted by bru at 9:25 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


A few weeks before Apollo 11, Life magazine (or maybe Time) had a detailed article about the mission, including the detail that Armstrong would step off the ladder left foot first.

Ask him, was the mission really planned to that level of detail? Or did they just make that up?

(I put this question to George Low, director of the Apollo program, thirty years ago; he laughed and said Life magazine probably guessed, but he wasn't really sure.)
posted by Wet Spot at 11:26 AM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


I found the article online (it was from Time Magazine, July 18, 1969). Here is the relevant part:

Left Foot Forward

Some ten hours after the landing, Armstrong will begin EVA (extravehicular activity), backing feet-first out of the hatch, on his belly. On the LM's "porch," he will pull a ring that opens a storage area and exposes a mounted TV camera, which will relay to audiences on earth a view of his awkward progress down the LM's ladder. At the bottom, Armstrong will place his right foot in the bowl-shaped footpad and—by 2:22 a.m. Monday, if he is on schedule—plant his left foot firmly on lunar soil.

posted by Wet Spot at 1:18 PM on April 24, 2008

He loves airplanes, he even hosted a TV show about classic planes. Ask him about his earliest memory of being on an airplane. I'd make that my opener, probably a good memory for him.
posted by Kattullus at 1:19 PM on April 24, 2008

[FYI-- We'll need an update, with the answers to the questions you end up asking!]
posted by availablelight at 8:34 PM on April 24, 2008

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