How Neil Armstrong Leaned on Law after Historic Moonwalk
By Csaba Sukosd | July 23, 2019
Fifty years ago, there was a pulse on this planet, and out of this world. It was a moment involving a man from Wapakoneta, Ohio, whose footprint took humans to unseen heights.
While the life of Neil Armstrong and his accomplishment of being the first man on the moon is well-documented in a biography, documentaries, and a feature-film biopic, some of his history remains largely unknown - in particular his legal endeavors.
"He was a very humble person and did not want his name exploited in any way," said Kraig Noble, a board member for the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum.
When MTV launched in 1981, it wanted to use his famous quote, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," as part of its station identification with the channel's logo in place of the American flag. Armstrong refused.
Thirteen years later, Hallmark created an ornament named after Armstrong's other famous quote from that mission, "The Eagle Has Landed," without his permission. A lawsuit claiming a misappropriation of his likeness and an invasion of privacy was settled with the astronaut giving the money to his alma mater, Purdue University.
"He didn't want it to be seen that he was profiting - or that others would profit - from his great accomplishment," Noble said.
In order to prevent such instances, Armstrong would go to great legal lengths to preserve the integrity and value of things he endorsed. When the Auglaize County Courthouse celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1994, he autographed limited-print paintings of the building, which raised more than $37,000 for local charities.
"He said, 'You might think that I was really strict about my conditions,' and frankly, I wasn't," said Auglaize County Common Pleas Court Judge Frederick Pepple. "I thought that his conditions all made sense, and we agreed, and followed them completely."
In 1999, legislation assisted Armstrong and fellow Ohio astronaut, John Glenn. The "right of publicity" statute makes it illegal to use the images of Ohio celebrities for TV ads, endorsements, and other promotions without authorization up to 60 years after their deaths.
"We all have the right to tell our own story and decide, if somebody else is going to speak for us, who that person is going to be and what part of the story they share," said Rachel Barber, the co-chair for the Wapakoneta 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 mission, which was responsible for the moon landing.
Five years later, that statute led to Armstrong's most hair-raising case when a barber sold his clippings to a collector for $3,000.
"It was an extreme violation of his privacy," said Barber, who's also the administrator for the Auglaize County Historical Society.
With the barber unable to pay and the collector unwilling to return the hair, the buyer avoided a lawsuit by donating $3,000 to charity.
Unmotivated by money, Armstrong was always inspired by education, including his eight years as an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. So, he entrusted Purdue with his likeness after his death in 2012.
"He was truly sincere and just dedicated to doing as much good as he could," Judge Pepple said. "I really think he was an example in so many ways for all of us."