There are two approaches to writing a biography. In the first, the subject is treated as if he or she were the protagonist of a novel – their life is dramatised. A good example of this type would be Rocketman by Nancy Conrad and Howard Klausner (see here). The second approach is far more academic, and treats its subject as just that, the subject of the book. To me, what the first type gains in readability it loses in authority. First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong by James R Hansen also proves the point, albeit from the opposite direction.
Neil Alden Armstrong is, of course, the first man to set foot on the Moon. On 20th July 1969, he climbed down from the hatch of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle, stepped onto the lunar regolith and said, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.
(Although Armstrong actually said “one small step for man”, and repeated studies have deemed it unlikely he ever uttered the implied “a”, he has said he certainly intended to speak the article. Besides, the phrase is nonsense without it, and given its historical importance I feel it’s best to quote it as it should have been said.)
First Man is authoritative. Hansen was chosen by Armstrong as his biographer in 2002, and the book quotes the astronaut extensively. It was also uses a great many quotes from Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire (see here) and Buzz Aldrin’s Return to Earth (see here)… which does give a somewhat odd effect: for example, Armstrong is commenting on Apollo 11 after more than thirty years, but his crewmates’ commentaries are from no more than a couple of years after the lunar landing. This also gives Armstrong the benefit of three decades of thought on the matter. But while he has been chiefly characterised as an introspective, thoughtful man, there isn’t actually that much evidence of this in the book.
Which is perhaps an unfair characterisation of Armstrong. He is notoriously taciturn, and when he does speak it’s often difficult to comprehend his meaning. At the press conference for the New Nine, he was asked why he had applied to become an astronaut. He said, “It was the general challenge of the unknowns of the program, and the general alignment of this part of it with our national goals”. Only when he is actually describing events, or discussing an engineering topic, does he make sense.
But then Armstrong saw himself first and foremost as an engineer. He was a test pilot for NASA prior to becoming an astronaut, but all those worked with him during that part of his career stressed his engineering expertise over his flying abilities – in fact, in Carrying the Fire, Collins remarks he had been told Armstrong was “one of the weaker stick-and-rudder men”. And yet, but for Armstrong’s flying abilities Apollo 11 might very well have come a cropper. When LM Eagle undocked from CSM Columbia, the docking tunnel still contained air. This gave Eagle sufficient push such that the onboard PNGS no longer accurately showed the LM’s position. So when the craft reached the final section of its powered descent, Armstrong and Aldrin found themselves heading for an area that was unsuitable for landing. So Armstrong manually flew the LM further and they landed with only 25 seconds of fuel remaining.
That Armstrong could do this, and do it successfully, is chiefly a result of his monomaniacal approach to his training for the mission. The best training device for the lunar landing was the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, which was notoriously dangerous – so much so that Director of Flight Operations Chris Kraft wanted to eliminate it. In fact, Armstrong nearly met his death in the LLTV, but managed to eject in time. That afternoon, he was back behind his desk, filling in a report.
First Man is an excellent resource on the whats and whens of Armstrong’s career – from his birth and childhood, through his service in Korea, his time at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edwards AFB, Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, right up to the time of the book’s writing. Hansen takes care to debunk several myths which have grown up about the astronaut, chiefly stories whose details have become inflated over the years, but he never really seems to come to grips with the man. Since Armstrong speaks for himself – either in NASA transcripts, or in interviews or correspondence with Hansen – it’s difficult to grasp his character. The fact that he often talks using the tortured English of an engineering report doesn’t help. It makes for an interesting comparison with Collins, whose character comes across plainly in his Carrying the Fire; and Buzz Aldrin, who is not as open in Return to Earth but is certainly far less inscrutable than Armstrong.
Collins described the Apollo 11 crew as “amiable strangers”, and as commander Armstrong bears most responsibility for that situation. He created the character of the team. It’s tempting to suggest that everyone in his life – bar immediate family, of course – was no more than an amiable stranger to him. There are occasions when the mask slips – the crew joking about in Columbia during the trip back to Earth, when discussing the tragedies he has experienced – but even then Armstrong permits only a carefully-controlled slippage.
First Man is an important book because its subject is important. Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon. He is also something of an enigma, and while First Man fails to solve that puzzle it comes closer to a solution than any other book. It is also an excellent historical document because it is a well-researched, comprehensive and authoritative treatment of its subject. The writing is perhaps not great, running from the serviceable to the occasionally bizarre: “To achieve jettison, the astronauts had to depressurize their cabin once again…” (p530). But it does its job.
First Man is an important book, although not a great biography. But it definitely belongs in the collection of any self-respecting space enthusiast.
First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-5631-5, 648 pp + acknowledgments, notes, bibliography and index)