NASA and astronauts have always fascinated and captivated the imaginations of many, including myself. The men and women who risk their lives in the name of science and exploration have been a perennial source of interest, and to read biographies and autobiographies recounting their ascent to the heavens (or assist from the ground—looking at you Gene Kranz) puts into focus their dedication and sacrifice. First Man by James R. Hansen, an examination of Neil Armstrong’s life, is a stellar addition to the canon of not only biographies, but of investigative and journalistic writing. After propelling human progress moonward, Neil’s legacy, which straddles two universes, (civilian and astronaut), was forever altered after one eclipsed the other. Throughout his life Neil would’ve preferred to refer to himself as anything other than astronaut, be it brother, son, father, husband, or engineer. The treatment of the subject in this book was much different than the others in this category, in such that to read this book is to think about the role that we, the crane-necked bystanders, play in creating myths and legends, or narratives of heroism. This is a story of NASA too, as they both undergo professional triumphs and tragic setbacks.
The book, first published in 2005, was and still is the first and only definitive account of Neil Armstrong’s life. To say anything about the re-telling of Neil’s life is to commend the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the text. The technicalities of space travel are written plainly and comprehensibly. When it comes to Neil, there is a mild closeness and reservation—a mirror of Neil himself. There is a subtext running concurrent to Neil’s life that calls into question what makes heroes, who makes heroes, and why we so desperately need them. In 55 hours of interviews with the author, Armstrong recalls—with great detail—the true events that have saturated popular culture and dispels the exaggerated myth-making tales of the first man to walk on the surface of the moon. It’s a great lesson on memory, but also illuminates the propensity of earthbound humans to exalt those who excel at greatness, even if it is to our detriment.
At its core, this is a tale of patriotism, of self-assured selflessness and passion. We all respect the man, and think we know him, but only do through the refracted light that is a pop culture prism. This book delves into the personality that allowed Neil to skyrocket to stardom and universal acclaim. We all know that part, but what about the man? That’s what this book attempts to delivers. You quickly understand that this man was not called to space by something bigger than himself, but rather a deeper love that just so happened to take him into unexplored territories: flight. Laced with great anecdotes about his childhood love of model airplanes, his naval assignment in Korea, becoming a test pilot, and his stints in the Gemini and Apollo programs, Hansen gives us the trajectory of an ambitious man. While we never truly learn about the emotional seas that rage beneath the calm and austere exterior, there are great tales of mishaps, errors, and mistakes that add to his affability.
The most interesting aspect in reading about the Apollo 11 mission was the dynamics of the crew with each other and with NASA. Organizationally, NASA played a politically motivated game energized by the need and pressure to win the space race against the Russians. While they chose suitable astronauts, their haste to colonize the moon in the name of American ideals produced radically ineffective and catastrophic results. The relationship between Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin was also compelling and characterized by many as “amiable strangers.” Where Neil was reserved and composed, Aldrin jumps out of the page with anxious-eyed entitlement and a desperate need to gain approval from his overbearing military father. The best story recalls the frenzied lobbying campaign Aldrin led to be the first man out of the lunar module. Aldrin was confident he would be chosen, but upon hearing rumors that NASA was learning towards Neil he took to the Apollo program offices and griped about being second to anyone who would listen. This would be a grudge he would harbor for decades to the point where it exacerbated his mental health. Meanwhile, Neil held his tongue and demonstrated stoicism and deference to the decision NASA made. The retelling of the mission itself was naturally riveting and reads like an adventure story, and provides more details about what occurred in those historic days down here and up there in 1969.
His life immediately after Apollo 11 was full of fanfare, veneration, and admirers. Much to his chagrin he became a globally beloved luminary. In 1971, he resigned from NASA to return to his first passion of engineering. He went on to become a university teacher, North Pole explorer, and then retreated to a life of quietude as a semi-recluse. However reluctant in being recognized as a legend, Neil Armstrong led a remarkable life full of grit, passion, and perseverance. He was a trailblazer. But we shouldn’t forget walking on the surface of the moon is not a singular human achievement.
In the spirit of full disclosure I must state that I work for the publisher of this book. That is no way sways my review, for my mission here is not self-promotion, but rather awareness and getting people to read. I highly recommend the following if you are interested in such tales of adventure, adventurers, and exploration: Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr; Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances by LeLand Melvin; and Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane. Read this before watching the movie, as I’m sure like all cases the book far outweighs the cinematic rendering.