Top critical review
A Long Mission
Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2014
Neil Armstrong was one of my boyhood heroes...how cool would it be to be the first man on the moon? I looked forward to reading this biography, and it finally made it to the top of my "to-read" list.
=== 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.