First Man – James R. Hansen

Review by Phil Vabre.

Neil Alden Armstrong is forever destined to be one of the iconic figures in world history, which is rather ironic considering that, of all the astronauts, Armstrong was notoriously the most self-effacing and publicity-shy. This authorised biography therefore provides us with a valuable insight into Armstrong: the man and his achievements. Written with the unprecedented cooperation of Armstrong himself, as well as family, friends and colleagues, the book gives access to Armstrong’s personality in a way that fleshes out and corrects the somewhat two-dimensional views of him previously published.

The first chapter, covering Armstrong’s distant ancestry, is somewhat tedious, and of doubtful value, but the book improves thereafter. In addition to his boyhood activities and schooling, lesser-known aspects of Armstrong’s career, including his combat experience as a USN fighter pilot in Korea, training as an engineer, and subsequent employment as a research pilot by NACA (later NASA) are covered in detail.

Naturally, the larger part of the book is given over to Armstrong’s occupation as an astronaut. There he became known and respected for his coolness and analytical abilities under pressure, for example during his resolution of the emergency aboard Gemini VIII which had sent the spacecraft spinning out of control. The book considers the selection of the crew for the historic Apollo XI flight and, contrary to the impression that has hitherto often been given, it is clear Armstrong’s selection as commander was not entirely a matter of random crew rotation. Also discussed at some length are the interesting crew dynamics between Armstrong and fellow crewmen Collins and Aldrin. Collins has aptly described them as “amiable strangers”.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, for it covers relatively unfamiliar ground, concerns Armstrong’s life post-Apollo. A household name and feted around the world, he nevertheless developed a reputation as a recluse. This book shows this reputation to be unfairly earned: Armstrong led a full and public life in academia and business, while also making numerous public appearances over the years.

What sets him apart from many other public figures, including many of his fellow astronauts, is that he always refused to be part of the ‘celebrity’ circus the media love to indulge in. Not that he was ‘media-shy’, just that he only cooperated with the media when he felt he had something worthwhile to say. And for that alone we can respect him greatly.

The book does have its flaws. For example, Hansen makes some questionable leaps about the influence of events in Armstrong’s early life on his later personality. There are also a few technical errors (for example, reference to ‘engine belt’ on page 472 should surely be ‘engine bell’) and, finally, Hansen has an irritatingly sycophantic way of frequently referring to Armstrong as the “First Man”.

Minor criticisms aside, this book casts Armstrong in a much more accurate and well-rounded mould than hitherto comparable works. Even if Armstrong had not been the first to step off the LEM ladder on to the surface of the moon, he would have still earned a place in history for his achievements in the X-15 and Gemini programmes. By his own admission more an engineer than an explorer, Armstrong comes across above all as a man of great integrity, something of a rarity in these celebrity-obsessed days.

ISBN 978-1-47117-787-3

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