4) First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, by James R. Hansen
Biographies are always fascinating, and when they are good they are very very good. Since I started bookblogging I have tremendously enjoyed works on J.R.R. Tolkien by Tom Shippey and John Garth, and on and/or by Saki, Judith Merrill, Kurban Said and most of all Samuel Pepys. (I notice looking at that list that the biographies I’ve tended to enjoy have been of writers – even though Pepys was best known in his time as a government official and amateur scientist, it is his secret writing for which he is remembered today. I’ve tended to be less enthusiastic about biographies of statesmen – John Adams, William Huskisson, early Roman Emperors – or scientists – Richard of Wallingford.
This biography of Neil Armstrong is not quite in the top rank, but it is exhaustive and generally satisfying.
Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s pilot on the lunar mission, comes off badly here. The work-focused Armstrong simply didn’t care who would be first off the ladder and onto the lunar surface; Aldrin, perhaps his own worst enemy, pretty much ensured that it would not be him by insistently raising the question at an early stage, especially when his politically well-connected relatives got involved. Aldrin then omitted to take any decent photographs of Armstrong actually on the moon – all the classic shots are of Buzz, taken by Neil (including the one I sometimes use as an icon). I felt that the biographer was a bit unfair to Aldrin, who was by far the best academically qualified astronaut (he had just finished a Ph D on guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous) and had an even better combat record than Armstrong’s; once the decision was made, he appears to have managed his disappointment perfectly well, and Hansen’s rather mean-spirited suspicion that the lack of photographs of Armstrong on the moon was Aldrin’s subtle revenge is wholly unsupported by the evidence he provides. The real hero of that particular story, as I suspect with many others in the space program, is Deke Slayton, the head of the astronauts office at NASA, and I would have liked to hear more about him.
(I did wonder why Aldrin’s role was designated as “lunar module pilot”. Armstrong actually did all the flying, which was fair enough given that he had had a hand in the first proposal for a lunar lander design even before he became an astronaut, and had spent more time than any of his colleagues designing and testing the actual lander. Aldrin was clearly kept pretty busy by his various duties – so busy that he forgot to take the pictures whose absence so troubles Hansen – but his precise job description is never explained.)
Armstrong comes across as a very reserved and self-contained person, not in fact well-prepared or well-suited for celebrity, although able to rise to the occasion when it was demanded of him. Hansen explores the character of his evangelical Christian mother to quite an extent; we hear almost nothing about his father, a financial officer in the Ohio state administration. His reserve was clearly a source of much frustration to his first wife (who gets a very sympathetic treatment from Hansen), and one senses that as a couple they never made time to work through a succession of tragedies – the death of their two-year-old daughter from a brain tumour in 1961, just at the moment when Armstrong was deciding whether or not to become an astronaut; a house fire in 1964, which destroyed many of their personal possessions and from which they were rescued by their neighbour, fellow astronaut Ed White; and a succession of deaths among Armstrong’s professional colleagues over the next couple of years, culminating with the loss of White and two others in the January 1967 Apollo 1 launchpad fire. Armstrong’s response was to lose himself in his work, and the fact that he continued to do so even after leaving NASA to become an engineering professor in his native Ohio was obviously crucial to the breakdown of the marriage in 1991. He has since remarried and the book finishes with a nice anecdote of a visit to family friends whose five-year-old daughter suddenly realises that the visitor has the same name as the first man on the moon.
Hansen does a lot to explode the many myths about Armstrong, usually using Armstrong’s own laconic comments to the effect that he does not remember doing or saying “anything like that”. One or two, however, which seem too good to be true are none the less fully supported by the record. It is true, for instance, that he got his pilot’s license as early as possible, a couple of weeks after his sixteenth birthday, but on the ground he was a terrible driver. It is also true that his parents appeared on a TV show called “I’ve Got A Secret” in September 1962, and their “secret” was that their son had just been named as an astronaut that day; and that the presenter asked how they felt about the prospects that he would be the first man to land on the moon. It is true that after a near-fatal accident when he had to eject from the prototype lunar module in 1968 he just went back to his office and got on with his paperwork. It is also true that the only flight he ever took with the legendary Chuck Yeager ended in an embarrassing crash, and each blamed the other for the accident – one senses that in Yeager’s world, it was usually other fools who screwed up and never him, while Armstrong’s disagreement with Yeager’s account is, strikingly, the closest he comes to direct criticism of anyone in the book.
There’s a lot in this book, as the above comments make clear. There’s also a lot that isn’t. There’s very little about the general political background for the space program; we learn that the first seven astronauts, and many of the second nine including Armstrong, all came from small-town America, but I’d have liked more about how that came to be; at the other end of the story, we hear about Armstrong’s testimony to Congress in support of continued funding for the space program, but learn almost nothing about why Congress chose not to do it. On the other hand, in some cases there is too much; I must say I skimmed some of the blow-by-blow of the Korean War (itself insufficiently contextualised) and early rocketplane tests. There’s a baffling error in a crucial passage on the Korean War, where the relevant year is incorrectly given several times as 1951 rather than 1952.
But all in all, I felt satisfied that this book had answered the question of how and why it was Armstrong, rather than anyone else, who ended up as the first man on the moon. If I want to read about the wider meaning of his mission and of space exploration, I will have to look somewhere else. And I will.