On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar landing module Eagle and became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. With more than a billion people listening back on Earth, Armstrong added to the gravity of the moment with the memorable remark, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
The Ohio-born Armstrong became enamored of flight as a child, earning his pilot’s license before his driver’s license. During the Korean War, he flew 78 combat missions as a naval aviator and later served as a research pilot on pioneering aircraft, including the 4,000-mph X-15 rocket plane that propelled him to the edge of space. Armstrong also flew on NASA's Gemini 8 mission in 1966. He retired from NASA in 1971 and remained active in the aerospace community, although he chose to keep mostly out of the public spotlight. Among his many honors and awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom—America’s highest civilian award—and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Furthermore, several schools, institutions, streets, buildings, airports, and public squares across the globe have been named after him.
In addition to being one of the most famous astronauts of all time, Armstrong is also one of the most renowned USC aerospace graduates. After graduating from Purdue University in 1955, Armstrong began pursuing a master’s degree from USC through an extension program while working as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. In fact, Armstrong had completed all required coursework (except one seminar) towards a master's degree when he joined NASA in early 1960s and transferred to Houston in Texas. In January 1970, Armstrong was not only back on Earth, but also back amongst his fellow Trojans. At USC, he gave a one-hour seminar on the technical aspects of landing Apollo's lunar module Eagle on the surface of the Moon in 1969 and afterward received his Master of Science in aerospace engineering.
Considering his status as an American icon, it was only a matter of time before Armstrong was asked to return to his alma mater. This occurred in 2005 when he delivered that year's commencement speech, urging students to ground themselves with principles and strong values. "They are your most important possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man. Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program for the human character.” During the ceremony, Armstrong also received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from USC.
Today, a new generation of scientists at USC are continuing Armstrong's legacy. In 2019, a group of USC engineering students became the only undergrad rocket club to design, build, and launch a rocket into space. After 15 years of work, the rocket reached a height of 339,800 feet, breaking the world record for the highest altitude ever reached by a vehicle entirely created by a college-based team.