Armstrong's best friend couldn't bear to watch moon landing: 'I knew it was a high-risk situation'
Austin "Jim" Bailey Jr.'s best friend, the pilot he helped train, was about to use the equipment Bailey helped design to do something historic on live television.
"You've got your best friend in a situation where he might not make it. You don't want to watch," Bailey says, explaining how he declined to watch buddy Neil Armstrong become the first human to step on the moon 50 years ago this week. "I was sure that I couldn't stand to see failure, and I knew it was a high-risk situation. I just said, 'Be careful.' I worried about him all the time."
Employed in Sweden as a test pilot on July 20, 1969, Bailey stayed in his quiet hotel room while his wife and kids watched history being made on TV in the lobby. They saw Armstrong use the controls designed by Bailey in his job as chief engineering pilot for Honeywell to manually land the Lunar Module, climb down the stairs and proclaim, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as his boot touched the surface of the moon.
"I was very pleased," Bailey remembers thinking as his kids ran back to his room with the news. "I felt wonderful."
While prognosticators were predicting we'd soon establish colonies on the moon and one day take vacations there, "I really didn't think so," says Bailey, recalling the engineering, money and personal sacrifices it took to get mission commander Armstrong and, 19 minutes later, Lunar Module pilot Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. onto the lunar surface. "I knew what a big effort it was."
A decorated pilot in World War II and Korea, Bailey, 97, of Crystal Lake, met Armstrong in 1956, when they were paired up as test pilots for the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo experimental, supersonic jet fighter. Bailey immediately bonded with Armstrong, who was eight years younger.
"He was Navy and I was Marine, but we flew the same type of airplanes on the same kinds of missions, so we had lots to talk about," Bailey says. "We were flying in the same theaters."
In 1959, Armstrong, then a NASA pilot, came to Minneapolis, where Honeywell was based and Bailey lived, to test a system designed by Honeywell for a new hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft.
"He was going to fly the X-15, and I was supposed to get him ready for it," remembers Bailey, who says Armstrong was perfect for the job. "There were a lot of unknowns. You were on the edge. The pilot made all the difference. He was unusually capable. He was remarkable."
Bailey and his wife, Nancy, who died in 2017 after 71 years of marriage, entertained Armstrong in their home whenever he was in town. The Baileys' daughters, Dale (named after the pilot who served as Bailey's wingman and was killed in action during the Korean War), Debby and Dawn, and son, Austin J. Bailey III, provided Armstrong with a family experience when the future astronaut was away from home.
"He was just another test pilot," Bailey's daughter, Debby Rosulek of Crystal Lake, says of Armstrong. After all, on Dec. 12, 1957, her father hit a then-record 1,207.6 miles per hour while flying the F-101. "I was in third grade and my dad was the fastest man in the world," Debby remembers telling classmates.
"I could do some things better than he could, but we pretty much were good, qualified military pilots," Bailey says.
Jim and Nancy Bailey and Neil and Janet Armstrong got along beautifully, hanging out whenever they could. Neil Armstrong was having dinner alone at the Baileys' house when his wife called to say their baby daughter, Karen, had an inoperable brain tumor that would kill her before her third birthday.
Armstrong solemnly listened, and "you could see he was emotionally affected," Jim Bailey remembers.
After leaving NASA in 1971, Armstrong joined the faculty of the University of Cincinnati as a professor of aerospace engineering.
"He was very happy in that role," Bailey says. The two exchanged letters and emails throughout their 56-year friendship, with Bailey visiting Armstrong in his Ohio home in 2001. Armstrong divorced his first wife in 1994.
"He envied Dad for having such a close relationship with his family," Debby Rosulek says.
"Great to hear from you," Armstrong wrote to Bailey in 2008, after Nancy Bailey developed dementia. "I'm sorry to hear that Nancy's memory is in a downward spiral. My memory is in terrible shape, but I don't have any excuse. … I am flunking retirement. I seem to stay as busy as always and I really am looking forward to a real retirement when I get to decide what I want to do and when I want to do it. … If you find yourself coming down this way, please let me know. We always have a spare room! My best, Neil."
Armstrong died Aug. 25, 2012, in Ohio, from complications after heart surgery.
"He was as nice of a guy as you'd want to meet. He didn't put on any pretenses," Bailey says. "I felt so comfortable with him. When we talked, we understood each other exactly."
In 1962, Armstrong and Bailey wrote very similar letters nominating each other for the prestigious Octave Chanute aviation award. When Armstrong won, Bailey gushed, "He's a crackerjack engineer and a very good pilot -- just about the ideal man for this sort of work."
Bailey received the award in 1979 for his work developing several advanced flight control systems for NASA. Shot down in October 1951 during what was then called the Korean conflict, Bailey crashed in the Pacific and survived enemy fire and large waves. Floating on a raft, he shot off a flare that didn't work, but his second and last flare brought him a rescue from an Air Force team. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and other honors.
He and Armstrong were members of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. When they were together in later years, they talked more about their families than they did the moon.
"I don't remember saying anything about the moon. He said surprisingly little," Bailey says. But they both got a kick out of driving Cadillacs in a silver color called Moonstone.
"He was a very quiet, reserved person. But he was a regular guy," Bailey says. "Not ostentatious or boisterous, just a good, steady person."
Bailey knew all seven of the original astronauts. "Almost every single one of them had a way about them that was appealing," he says. Bailey donned a spacesuit during testing of a mock-up of the Mercury capsule that John Glenn would use to orbit the earth in 1963, took his turn enduring G-forces on the spinning centrifuge machine used in astronaut training, and mourned when Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee were killed in a freak fire during a test launch in 1967.
"Unfortunately, it's costly at times. The loss of a life is a terrible thing," Bailey says, his voice choking with emotion. "When one of my friends was killed -- I knew the wife, the kids -- it was painful."
But working in the space program and helping his country put a man on the moon was a joy, Bailey says.
"I was always striving to make things work, and I was always proud when they did. I was pretty much on edge all that time. You felt a big responsibility because you had all these people depending on you," Bailey says. "When you are part of a thing like that, you don't see the whole picture clearly. You just do your job. When it happens, you're absolutely thrilled."