First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong Paperback – September 18, 2018
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“A powerful, unrelenting biography of a man who stands as a living testimony to everyday grit and determination . . . A must for astronaut buffs and history readers alike.” -- Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A great read.” , The Kansas City Star
“Ever since Apollo 11’s ‘one giant leap for mankind’ in 1969 the world has wondered who Neil Armstrong really is. Now, at last, Jim Hansen has stripped away the myths and mysteries to bring us face to face with the man himself. This definitive portrait offers many new and fascinating details about Armstrong and his life and about the momentous and unforgettable era of exploration in which he was lucky enough—and talented enough—to play a key role.” -- Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon
About the Author
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=== The Good Stuff ===
* James Hansen evidently had pretty good access to Armstrong. He had a wealth of personal, family and professional history, including the occasional glimpse behind the scenes. There are a few interesting tidbits and some bone-headed maneuvers throughout the years, all of which make the man "more human".
* Armstrong was evidently a very private man, and very careful about what parts of his thoughts and personality were going to be available for public discussion. Occasionally Hansen succeeds in penetrating this stoic front and capturing glimpses of Armstrong's thoughts. For example, he explains multiple times that he was not at all disappointed or angered that crew-companion Edwin Aldrin never took a picture of him while on the moon. He says multiple times that it was just the way the time-line of the moon walk worked out, and he is sure there was no "revenge" factor because Aldrin didn't get to step out of the LEM first. He repeats himself, again and again. It is not hard to get the feeling that it is something that has bothered him all these years, but he is too professional to admit.
* The book is certainly detailed. (See more thoughts below). Hansen carefully builds a portrait of Armstrong based on his personal, professional and military career of a man cool and calm under pressure, and capable of thinking his way through problems when all the alarm buzzers are flashing red. He relates a story of where Armstrong had baled out of a plane, nearly killing himself, early in the morning. Coworkers found him working at his desk that afternoon as if nothing had happened.
* The latter parts of the book, from about the time of the Gemini launches, were much better than the beginning, and held my interest. Even the explanations of his "reclusive" behavior later in life were also very revealing and captivating.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* NASA was a great believer in weight reduction, and this book could have used some of that skill. I have no interest in Armstrong's medieval ancestors, and I have strong doubts about records that old anyway. Likewise, I really don't care that his Mother made her own wedding cake, or that it was "an iced angel food cake in three graduated layers ornamented with rosebuds and garlands". The book is full of such detail, although at least in latter parts of the book the detail actually concerns the subject. It is almost as if the author was determined to use every scrap of information he could find about Armstrong, interesting or not.
* Similarly, Hansen could have added details which might not have been directly available. For example, a number of times the text mentions the problem of "roll coupling", an aerodynamic problem of high speed flight in which the inertia of an aircraft overcomes the counter-effects of its control surfaces (thanks, Google). But while the book went on for pages and pages about Armstrong's Mother's favorite teacher, it couldn't devote a paragraph or two to a phenomenon that almost killed Armstrong, twice.
* By about the first ten pages, I was sick of hearing about his Mother and her religious fervor. Enough already.
=== Summary ===
There is a lot to like about this book, but an almost equal amount to dislike. I came very close to putting the book down for good during the first 100 pages or so, but glad I kept at it, because it definitely improved as it went on. The author genuinely seemed to like Armstrong, which is fine, but seemed to let that cloud his analysis of some of the personal and professional conflicts in Neil's life. You could almost feel Hansen taking Armstrong's side in a few conflicts.
Overall, I'd recommend it to fans of the space program, but with the caveat that it is OK to skip over entire sections of the text without missing anything interesting or important.
Hansen conducted 55 hours of extensive taped interviews with Armstrong and was granted unparalleled access to his family and friends. The product is a detailed, accurate, and extensive chronicle of Armstrong throughout every phase of his life. Boyhood aviation enthusiast, Naval Aviator, test pilot, astronaut, family man, and historical icon; they are all here.
Authorized biographies can sometimes turn into hagiographic, and sanitized versions of the actual subject, but not here. Neil is portrayed as he was perceived by his friends and coworkers, warts and all. He was a quiet and often guarded individual whose disciplined engineering personality was well suited to the sometimes harrowing professions of test pilot and astronaut, but perhaps not so well suited to the role of spouse.
Hansen plumbs the depths of one America's greatest, misunderstood, and most reluctant heroes better than any author. First Man will stand as the definitive character study of our time's greatest historical figure.
In light of the fact that we are quickly approaching the 50th anniversary of that historic mission is one of the reasons why I wanted to read this before July 20. While the movie starring Ryan Gosling as our leading First Man didn't perform very well at the box office, I loved every minute of it and couldn't wait to read the book to fill in the missing details that would help me understand even more the fascinating life of Neil Armstrong.
"First Man" begins with a look back in time, retracing the Armstrong name as far back as the 1400s and then jumps forward through eight generations of the Armstrong ancestry, Neil being the ninth. We follow this child prodigy through his teenage years as a pilot where upon the age of 16 he earned his pilot's license even before his driver's license; his pursuit of a degree in aeronautical engineering temporarily interrupted by his naval aviator career which included dangerous missions that took him and other pilots over North Korea; later recruited by NACA (NASA's predecessor) to "push the outside of the envelope" aboard the X-series aircraft high above the desert at Edwards Air Force Base, some of the most thrilling moments of the book are contained within these pages; and ultimately to NASA to command two missions: Gemini VIII and its successful completion of the first-ever docking in space; followed by Apollo 11 which led to that historical day on July 20, 1969, where more than 600 million people from around world watched and listened to those immortal words spoken by Armstrong as he stepped down from the Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon, "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind!"
Throughout his career, he risked his life on so many accounts and Hansen brilliantly captures every bit of the nail-biting action during those perilous test flights, Lunar Landing Training Vehicle testing when Armstrong narrowly escaped with only seconds to spare before the vehicle crashed and burned. Even his Gemini mission was in jeopardy when the recently docked vehicles started to spin out of control. I was captivated as each thrilling detail unfolded. But even more thrilling than those death-defying maneuvers, was the final descent to the surface of the moon that had me on the edge of my seat. Because of Hansen's moment-by-moment account of the entire landing which lasted less than 15 minutes but seemed like an eternity, I felt like I was on board the Eagle the entire time. How Hansen and Armstrong were able to able to recall in such spectacular detail is mind boggling.
Despite all of the thrilling accounts of his spectacular career, there were darker times as well, devastating losses that he suffered during some of the pivotal times in his NASA career. Hansen tenderly pulls back the curtain to reveal those heartbreaking moments which brought me to tears on a few occasions. How Armstrong moved past them without once letting them affect his performance in the day job is beyond me. But he did.
"First Man" not only allows us to follow in the footsteps of Armstrong but we also embark on a privileged insider's look into the the operations of the NASA space programs including an overview of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and how each of them was a stepping stone designed to contribute to the overall success of a lunar landing - "to land a man on the surface of the moon and return him home safely." As we all know, Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, achieved that goal nearly 50 years ago today, July 20, 1969.
If you're a NASA buff or only remotely interested America's entry into the Space Age, I highly recommend this book to all. While it does get a little technical at times due to Hansen's expertise in aerospace history and the history of science and technology, the pages within offer a compelling look into the life a man who never wanted to become a hero.
Top international reviews
It is quite a long biography, and also quite dry in a few places for most readers, with many technical details of various aircraft and early spacecraft in which he flew; though Armstrong would have welcomed this as he saw himself primarily as an engineer whose life was about resolving problems in this field. That said, much research has been done on his family background, which has been traced back ten generations to the first Armstrongs to emigrate from Scotland to America in the early 18th century. Neil was born in a small town in Ohio in 1930. He was fascinated by flying from an early age, and is quoted as saying that even in elementary school his intention was to be an aircraft designer. He gained a student pilot's license when he turned 16. He became a naval aviator and was taking part in the Korean War (including nearly parachuting into a minefield) in his very early 20s. He then became a test pilot, testing increasingly sophisticated aircraft that could fly higher and faster than ever before. This was a very dangerous business - far more test pilots died in flight than ever have in the whole history of spaceflight from the 1960s to date.
Neil applied for astronaut selection in 1962, shortly after the tragic death of his two year old daughter Karen from a brain tumour. Before the Apollo programme, he was command pilot in 1966 for Gemini VIII, in which, on the way back from performing the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit, he and co-pilot David Scott, went tumbling away end to end, potentially disastrously, before regaining control. This wasn't the end of Neil's brushes with death; while flying a lunar landing research vehicle in 1968, he had to parachute out seconds before it blew up. The story of Apollo XI is too well known to need recounting in this review, but suffice it to say that Armstrong's personal unflappability and resourcefulness demonstrated why he was absolutely the right person to command this first and successful attempt to land on the moon and return safely to Earth.
(As an aside on the Apollo programme, I have often thought that Apollo 8, that flew at Christmas 1968, should be better known, as its astronauts - including Jim Lovell who later commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 in 1970 - were the first humans to leave Earth’s gravitational field and actually travel to the moon's vicinity, and orbit it successfully).
After the storming success of Apollo XI, the rest of Armstrong's life was, in a sense, perforce an anti-climax. After a brief period as a NASA administrator, he spent a decade in academia and was headhunted for the boards of many companies. He spread himself too thinly, and in the end this told on his marriage, he and his wife Janet splitting in 1990 after 34 years together. He kept up his support for the space programme, such as it was, and objected, albeit politely and in a restrained manner, to the Obama administration's regrettable decision to cancel NASA's plans to return men to the Moon by 2020. Astronauts, being resilient and in peak physical condition, tend to lead long lives and Armstrong was generally in fine condition until his death from complications after heart surgery in August 2012 (slightly mysteriously, after he had been expecting to make a full recovery). His place as a giant in the history of exploration and engineering is assured, and even those who know nothing about spaceflight would recognise his famous words as he stepped onto the Moon's surface. But he never considered himself an explorer: “What I attended to was the progressive development of flight machinery. My exploration came totally as a by-product of that. I flew to the Moon not so much to go there, but as part of developing the systems that would allow it to happen.” He did that, of course, but so much more.