By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The first man to set foot on the moon says people shouldn't jump to conclusions about what caused the space shuttle Columbia to break apart .Neil Armstrong, the 72-year-old resident of Indian Hill who became one of America's most famous heroes in 1969, gave a rare interview with the Enquirer after Saturday's crash.
Even beyond his personal experience in space, Armstrong knows how difficult the months ahead will be for NASA and the public waiting for answers. Armstrong, a former professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, has served on several accident investigation boards, including one that studied the 1986 Challenger tragedy.
He cautioned people not to speculate about what brought the Columbia down, such as the intense focus on a piece of insulation that fell off the main fuel tank during launch that some say might have damaged the shuttle's left wing.
"The first impression is usually wrong," Armstrong said.
It took four months to investigate the Challenger explosion. So Armstrong expects no instant answers about the Columbia disaster.
"These things take time," he said. "Nobody wants to know the answers more quickly than those who run the shuttle programs. They are working with as much speed as possible."
Armstrong, who usually watches the brief snippets of space shuttle launches and landings on television, was not tuned in Saturday.
Instead, an early morning phone call from a friend drove him to the television, where news on almost every channel told him what he didn't want to hear - that Columbia went missing just minutes before its scheduled landing in Florida.
Newscasters used words like "contingency" and "missing."
Then Armstrong, veteran of the Gemini 8 mission and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, started to hear reports of debris being found.
"I knew at that point the vehicle was lost," Armstrong said. "There was no chance.
The man who rarely gives media interviews was subdued as he spoke from his Indian Hill home Saturday evening. He wore neatly pressed khakis and a blue, buttoned-down shirt. His house was dark as dusk settled in. A television could be heard in the background.
He'd been watching all day.
"It's a sad day," Armstrong said. "You don't want to hear this."
Armstrong said he could not recall meeting any of the astronauts who died Saturday, but like so many space veterans, his heart goes out to their families.
"There is a great deal of grief," Armstrong said.
Armstrong was heartened to see how the nation came together in grief, but said he isn't surprised that NASA and the space program aren't always at the forefront of the news.
"Humans adapt to situations quickly," he said. "They become accustomed to them, and expect them. That's what happened to the space program."
COLUMBIA DISASTER: LOCAL REACTION
(Complete Columbia coverage at Cincinnati.com)
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