Archive for the ‘Neil Armstrong’ Category

Neil Armstrong RIP

August 25, 2012

At the age of 82, after heart surgery, the first human being to set foot on another world, Neil Alden Armstrong, has died. He wasn’t specifically picked to be humanity’s first interplanetary ambassador. There are those who say NASA wanted a civilian to be the first man on the Moon, and perhaps there was some careful scheduling such that Armstrong was made commander of Apollo 11. However it happened, it was Neil Armstrong who first put booted foot to lunar regolith.

All those who worked with Armstrong had nothing but respect for Armstrong’s skills, expertise and coolness. There was even a rumour that he remained so cool because he believed a person was allotted a finite number of heartbeats per lifetime and he was making sure they lasted.

After a worldwide publicity tour for Apollo 11, Armstrong became a recluse. He stopped being an astronaut and instead turned university professor. When he felt strongly enough on space-related matters, he stepped up and spoke his mind. There are a number of books about Neil Armstrong, but perhaps the best is James Hansen’s First Man – see here.

Neil Armstrong is the fourth of the twelve Moonwalkers to die. That means eight are left. Will I see more Moonwalkers during my lifetime? I’m beginning to suspect not. I hope I’m wrong. Even so, should some astronaut, cosmonaut or taikonaut set foot on the Moon in the next twenty to thirty years, technological advances will mean their achievement can never really compare with those of the Apollo astronauts. They were at the sharp end of the one of the greatest engineering projects of the twentieth century. They travelled 250,000 miles through space to another world on less advanced technology than we now find in our pockets. The astronauts made the footprints in the regolith, but their achievement is just as much the achievement of all those who supported them – the people who designed, built, tested, maintained, managed and operated all the equipment used by the Apollo programme.

History will remember Armstrong’s name because he was first. But what they all did deserves celebration.


First on the Moon, Armstrong, Aldrin & Collins

July 20, 2009

Forty years ago, the first person from this planet set foot on Earth’s satellite, the Moon. He was Neil Alden Armstrong, and with Buzz Aldrin he formed the crew of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle (Michael Collins remained in orbit about the Moon aboard Command Module Columbia). They were followed by a further six missions, one of which – Apollo 13 – did not make it to the lunar surface. On 14th December 1972, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt climbed back into the Apollo 17 LM Challenger and shortly afterwards it departed. No one has visited the Moon since.

First on the Moon by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins is the definitive account of the first mission to land on the Moon. It was published immediately after the event, and was written with the assistance of Gene Farmer and Dora Jane ‘Dodie’ Hamblin, two of the Life journalists who had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families.

You would expect the most authoritative book on the Apollo 11 lunar landing to be one written by the three men who actually made the trip. But would that necessarily make it a good book? Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are, after all, astronauts and not writers – Farmer and Hamblin’s presence on the title page notwithstanding. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that First on the Moon is very good indeed. Not only because it tells the story of the mission with authority, but because it is readable, well-structured, and a fascinating read from start to finish.

The book is written in several voices – there are transcripts of the mission, some parts of which are annotated; there are passages by the three astronauts, typically in answer to questions; there are sections describing events at the homes of the astronauts as their families watch the mission on television; and there are passages more typical of a non-fiction record of Apollo 11, not all of which feature the Apollo 11 crew or their families. Together these build a mosaic, rich in detail, of what happened during the flight, for both those aboard and those who remained behind.

Having now read First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong (see here), Buzz Aldrin’s Return to Earth (see here), and Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire (see here), I feel I have some idea of the character of the three astronauts – and First on the Moon does nothing to dispel the impression of them as people I had gained from those three books. Armstrong still talks like a flight manual, Aldrin is as blunt as he is in his autobiography, and Collins provides the light relief and culture. Those three books, however, do not cover Apollo 11 – surely the defining moment of their lives – in as much detail as First on the Moon.

First on the Moon also scores highly in another area. Since Farmer and Hamblin were embedded with the Apollo families, they witnessed the reactions of the wives and children to the mission. The families are certainly not ignored in First on the Moon, and they are quoted almost as extensively as the astronauts themselves. It makes for a rounded view of Apollo 11 – the three astronauts in space in their CSM, while their spouses and children watched and waited at home.

The book finishes with an excellent epilogue by Arthur C Clarke, entitled ‘Beyond Apollo’. It’s typical Clarkeian futurism, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that his optimism in many areas was unfounded. After Apollo 17, no one ever left Earth orbit again – so there are no moonbases, there have been no missions to Mars. Which is a shame: I think I would have liked the late twentieth century Clarke depicts. Those familiar with Clarke’s novels and stories may spot references to his fiction in some of the points he makes.

Of course, since First on the Moon was written by the Apollo 11 crew, with the help of Life journalists, it’s not going to be “warts and all”. It puts a positive spin on the whole endeavour, and no one comes out of it looking bad. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, Apollo 11 should be celebrated. When talking to Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins aboard USS Hornet after their return, President Nixon said, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation”. Hyperbole aside, putting two men on the Moon was an astonishing achievement; and even more astonishing when you consider the time at which it happened, the 1960s. Most of the technology required was in its infancy then. Now, we have the science, technology and engineering to repeat the achievement, and it would not be nearly so difficult.

Even if some nation does put an astronaut on the Moon in the next twenty years, and several have declared an intent to do so, it will never be as impressive an accomplishment as Apollo 11.

There are many books available on Apollo 11 – and yet more being published this year to celebrate the its fortieth anniversary. First on the Moon not only has the advantage of being written by the crew of Apollo 11, but also having been written shortly afterward. It’s an excellent study of the mission. Highly recommended.

First on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, with Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin (1970, Little, Brown, No ISBN , 433pp + epilogue, acknowledgment and notes)

First Man, James Hansen

July 19, 2009

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)

One Giant Leap, Leon Wagener

December 30, 2007

An event as momentous as the first human being to land on the Moon is sure to attract a lot of commentary, and certainly Neil Armstrong has been the subject of a number of books. One Giant Leap is subtitled “Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey”… And right there you have the first indication that this is not going to be one of the better books about him. Armstrong, of course, did not make a “stellar” journey – he stayed entirely within the Solar System, travelled no more than a quarter of a million miles from Earth, in fact. Okay, perhaps that’s poetic licence. But the cover also depicts a figure in a spacesuit on the Moon. There are no photographs of Armstrong on the Moon. Aldrin didn’t take any. So that can’t be Armstrong on the cover.

Not good omens, and I’ve not even opened the cover. Once I have done, it comes as no surprise to learn that Wagener has little or nothing to say about Armstrong and Apollo 11 that has not been said elsewhere. And more accurately. He perpetuates, for example, the myth that Buzz Aldrin didn’t take any photos of Armstrong because he was upset at not being first to leave the LM. Not to mention misnaming Alexei Leonov as Alexei Leonor (isn’t that a fabric conditioner?). Armstrong is described throughout in language not unlike “the noble-countenanced astronaut”, even if those exact words are not used. Wagener claims that Armstrong‘s childhood dream had been to land on the Moon, and that he was chosen as the first man to walk on the Moon by NASA because he was a civilian. The latter is certainly untrue – there was a lot of juggling of crews and missions prior to Apollo 11. The former… well, I’ll reserve judgment on that claim until I’ve read more on the subject, but I find it hard to believe.

One Giant Leap reads more like a hagiography than a serious attempt to document and understand its subject and his life. I’ll admit I knew little about Armstrong – he is, after all, an intensely private man – and I now know more having read One Giant Leap. But I found the book’s uncritical appreciation of Armstrong annoying, and its occasional inaccuracies irritating. On the plus side, the book has a good index, and it does seem a fairly complete description of Armstrong‘s life.

One Giant Leap doesn’t really get to grips with Neil Alden Armstrong, the man, although I’ll concede that’s not an easy task. If there’s a better biography of Armstrong available – and James R Hansen’s First Man may be it, but we’ll see – then I’d suggest One Giant Leap is for completists only.

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey, Leon Wagener (2004, Forge, ISBN 0-312-87343-3, 302pp)