Forty-five years ago today, Neil Armstrong and his crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins sat in quarantine near their Saturn 5 rocket and Apollo spacecraft. They were waiting to be launched in less than 24 hours. Because of his coolness in tight spots, Armstrong had been selected to command what was arguably the 20th century’s most magnificent voyage: making the first landing on a place other than Earth.
I first met the small-town test pilot in 1962, when he was chosen to join NASA's second group of astronauts. I quickly learned he was a private person, never cashing in on his high-profile role. He simply did not consider himself anything special. But those around him did, when they were told that Armstrong was barely 21 years old when combat forced him to eject from his crippled jet fighter over Korea. His colleagues also paid notice a decade later, when he brought his X-15 rocket plane back home safely after what looked like certain failure.
The legend about Neil Armstrong’s coolness was firmly established during his first flight into space in 1966, when he fought a stuck control rocket on his Gemini 8 spacecraft to a standstill. His skill with flight controls cleared the way for him to fly the first emergency return from orbit. Two years later, his colleagues were stunned to see him miraculously eject less than three seconds before his moon-landing trainer, known as the "Flying Bedstead," crashed and burned.
Convinced that Armstrong was the coolest astronaut around, NASA's bosses assigned Neil to land America’s first spacecraft on the moon.
NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree, provides a day-by-day account of 1969's Apollo 11 moon mission.
IN MY BOOK, "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight," we find Armstrong and crew waiting in their prelaunch quarantine — a period of isolation designed to make sure they weren't exposed to some show-stopping germ.
Their bosses strolled in wearing hospital masks, and chief flight director Chris Kraft asked, "Have we missed anything, Neil?"
"Nothing, Chris," Neil assured him. "It's all been done. All that's left is the countdown."
Kraft appreciated the confidence coming from a man who wasn't known as a braggart. If there was anything that hadn't been done, not a member of the launch team could say what it was. Kraft knew the equipment was ready. He knew the ground crews, the flight controllers — yes, the astronauts were ... Apollo 11 was the most ready mission ever. He just wanted to find out whether Neil knew something he didn't.
Then the Apollo program's manager, George Low, had a question. "When you step off the ladder, have you thought about what you're going to say, Neil?"
Neil took a measured moment. He was being questioned by the big boss, and tact was a must. The truth was, he'd been thinking about what he should say. It was also true he had not made a final decision. Neil had run his thoughts by his brother Dean and a couple of others close to him, and he told Apollo’s manager, "Sure, George, I've been thinking about it."
Neil added a smile and quickly directed the conversation onto another topic. "Please tell all the hands that touched Apollo 11, all who worked those long hours, we appreciate it. This launch belongs to each of them. Tell them they'll be riding with us all the way."
MEANWHILE, A CROWD was gathering on the beaches and roadways, congregating in any place that brought them within eyesight or earshot of America’s spaceport. They discovered that a clear view of Apollo 11's launch pad was at a premium. There wasn't a room for rent in central Florida. It had come down to private families renting sofas, cots, even hammocks to anyone who wanted to be there.
By the time morning came, the crowd had swelled to more than a million. About a thousand police officers, sheriff deputies, state troopers, Coast Guard and marine patrol officers struggled to keep the masses orderly.
For myself, I spent the three days and nights before Apollo 11's launch sleeping, bathing, shaving, changing clothes and eating in NBC News' studios overlooking the launch pad, taking notes on everything that did or did not happen. The setup kept me free from the unrelenting phones. Even then, I was writing Neil’s story.
- Read an Excerpt from 'Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight'
- Neil Armstrong Book Gets Inside a Moonwalker's Mind
- Flash Interactive: Glory Days on the Final Frontier
This is the first installment of an eight-part series retracing the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, day by day. The account is based on material from Jay Barbree's newly published book, "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight." Check back with NBCNews.com on Wednesday for the story of Apollo 11's launch.
Barbree will discuss the Apollo legacy on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show that airs on Blog Talk Radio and in the Exploratorium's Second Life virtual auditorium. The show airs July 21 at 8 p.m. ET.