on October 19, 2005
In a powerful bit of foreshadowing, the moment that made Neil Armstrong famous came at a time when his face was blocked by a reflective visor and no clear photographs of him were taken.
In fact, the only visual records of his becoming the first human to walk on the Moon are a low quality black and white television transmission and a 16 milimeter color film taken from afar and above.
Much the same could be said to describe the view Neil Armstrong has allowed the public into his life since that day in July 1969.
Mislabeled as a recluse by the general public and press, Armstrong didn't retract from the world; rather, he followed his moonwalk with a relatively quick return to normal life instead of the role as a celebrity many had expected and some of his peers had embraced.
After more than 35 years of avoiding public introspection, it may have also been assumed that Armstrong was as happy living out his rest of his time on earth with just as little fanfare. It's that very reason why "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" by James Hansen is so remarkable.
Armstrong didn't just authorize a biography being written, as if not caring how it ultimately read, rather he opened his entire life to Hansen, from the 50 hours of interviews he took part in, to encouraging his friends, family and colleagues to cooperate.
The result is a book that not only explains the "first" in its title - as other books about the Apollo program have done before - but also the "man" that was behind the visor, a first in its own right.
Hansen uses the unprecendented access he had gained to offer a comprehensive account of Armstrong's journey from his youth to naval aviator, research pilot to astronaut to ultimately an icon and family man. The level of detail surpasses at times what one would expect from even the most researched of profiles.
For example, while discussing Armstrong's training with the Navy, Hansen shares not only the memories of class mates but performance records from individual flights or "hops". "July 8  (A-2): Average to above. Student looks around very good & appears to be at ease. Applies instructions above average."
Hansen uses this approach - citing personal documents - whenever possible, granting the reader access to papers generally held as private. This extends to such disparate themes as Armstrong's relationship with his parents to the details of his two flights into space. For the average biographical subject, this insight would amend previously disclosed details; for Armstrong, these offer fresh light on full passages of the moonwalker's life. The reader learns how others viewed Armstrong at the time of the event(s), offering the untainted perspective that apparently became common after Armstrong landed on the Moon.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of "First Man" is how much time is spent correcting misconceptions or even outright lies about Armstrong's dealings with others. More than a few people who knew Armstrong - and a few who didn't - felt compelled to take credit for his moonwalk regardless if the facts supported such. From the neighbor who claimed to share private evenings studying the moon through a telescope with young Neil (he didn't) to the town that identified itself as his hometown (it wasn't), there was apparently no shortage of people who wanted a share in Armstrong's fame.
An entire closing chapter is devoted to Armstrong's role as an icon. From autograph requests to his adoption by religions (and the non-religious alike), Hansen paints the picture of a man being appropriated from all sides. By the time this section closes, readers gain an appreciation for the reluctance of Armstrong today to be more accessible.
Throughout "First Man", Hansen interjects Armstrong's own reflections, which while discussing his astronauts years, fits the final missing piece into a series of well told tales.
While Armstrong's first mission, Gemini 8 and its inflight emergency have been recounted before (most recently by Armstrong's crewmate David Scott, in his own biography), Hansen presents its effect on Armstrong for the first time. Readers learn that while the world celebrated his return, Armstrong privately struggled with a mission that was cut short. Hansen raises the beliefs by some astronauts that Armstrong made the wrong choices during flight and was at fault; if they only knew of his own privately-held regrets at the time.
Armstrong's second, last and most famous mission - his Apollo 11 landing on the Moon - might have also been the least interesting in "First Man" on the account that its been described so many times that one might assume there is nothing more to add. Hansen's version is engaging, as he alternates between the transcripts from the flight, others' memories (including Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins) and Armstrong's own recollections. There are even a few new, not-so-minor details to be learned, including why and how Armstrong became the 'first man' to step onto the surface and who, other than Aldrin, might just have been second.
In the end though, the most powerful stories told in "First Man" take place on the ground, as Hansen delves into the death of Armstrong's daughter Karen and his divorce from his first wife Janet. Perhaps because of their extremely personal nature, or pehaps because they offer a glimpse of Armstrong's humanity these sections stand out among the book's 700 pages. They serve to remind readers that Armstrong is first a man.
At the end of the last millennium, historians and futurists alike suggested that the only event to be remembered of the past 1000 years in 1000 years time would be the first moon landing. The only person to be remembered, Neil A. Armstrong. Thanks to Hansen, future historians will know more about the man than the fact he was first.
I've never bought for an instant that Neil Armstrong was a recluse. I guess that compared to the celebrity driven world we live in today many are hardpressed to understand why Armstong didn't cash in on his celebrity....didn't sell his soul for a few minutes of fame.
Reading First Man, The Life of Neil A. Armstrong is a refreshing glimpse into the life of one of the most significant individuals of the 20th Century. I'm amazed at how indifferent we all became over not only spaceflight, but manned flights to the moon and then landing and getting back alive. James Hansen has brought it all back.
Wonderfully written with generous doses of Armstongism's, First Man is a terrific review and expose of the 20th century. More importantly, we are given a wonderful tour of the life and times of Neil Armstrong. From his birth to what he's doing today......its all here. You appreciate what a cool customer Armstrong really was as you sit in Apollo 11 with him waiting for the engines to kick in.
Hansen not only gives us a well written story about Armstrong, he does it in a professional manner. Copious endnotes, bibliographies, lists of interviews, email messages....its all here. The documentation is refreshing especially the way so many biographies are put together today.
I'm impressed and I highly recommend this biography to any space enthusiast.
on November 7, 2005
Hansen has penned an epic look at the life of Neil Armstrong and the early history of unmanned and manned flights to the moon. His look is both telescopic and microscopic. Telescopic in the grandeur of its scope, moving from 500 years ago in Armstrong's ancestral Scotland to Armstrong's life today, and everything in between. Microscopic in the detail of its scope, examining every cell of Armstrong's life from his mother's character, to his boyhood fascination with engineering, to his early training, to his relationship, to his inner thoughts and feelings.
Weighing in at a hefty 784 pages, "First Man" is a heavyweight edition to the growing historical biographies about manned space flight. Armstrong, notoriously private, opens his life to Hansen leading to many surprising revelations, especially the details of the Gemini 8 emergency which reads like a Ronnie Howard Apollo 13 script.
"The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" dips equally into his career and his character. At times the mind-boggling vocational details are over-presented, slowing down an otherwise gripping historical narrative. Counterintuitively, the most compelling narratives occur on earth, not in the heavens. Hansen's account of the death of Karen Armstrong, Neil's daughter, personalizes the engineer into the father. His account of Armstrong's divorce from Janet personalizes the engineer into the human being.
Reading "First Man" feels like having the visor lifted from Armstrong's Apollo 11 spacesuit. We glimpse the man behind the mission, and the mission of the man.
Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Soul Physicians," "Spiritual Friends," and "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction."
on November 18, 2007
Somewhere in my reading, I remember someone who said that there is only one name from the 20th Century that is guaranteed to be remembered 1,000 years from now; the name of the first man to step foot on another planet, Neil Armstrong.
I was alive when Apollo 11 landed and Armstrong made his historic step but, at 11 months old, far from old enough to remember the event. Despite that, though, the events of July 20, 1969 are so much a part of historical memory that it seems like we were all there. There's always been one mystery, though, and that's been the man who actually stepped off the Eagle and onto lunar soil for the first time. Now, the mystery is, at least somewhat, solved thanks to the publication of an fascinating biography of the First Man On The Moon, titled, appropriately enough, First Man.
James Hansen, who was given extraordinary access to Armstrong himself as well as his family and personal records, tells a story that stretches from Armstrong's boyhood in Ohio, to Korea, to his years as a test pilot, all of which were mere training for his ultimate destiny. In addition to a mass (though not overwhelmingly so) of technical data about everything from the X-15 flights that Armstrong flew at Edwards AFB to the Gemini and Apollo programs, Hansen paints, as best he can, a portrait of an intensely private man who was thrust, willingly or otherwise, into an intense spotlight comparable to that of his boyhood hero Charles Lindbergh.
Like Lindbergh, Armstrong was and is, it seems, the reluctant hero. Hansen consistently quotes him as giving equal credit for the achievements of Apollo 11 to his crew mates and the men on the ground and in the factories who built the Apollo program from the ground up.
The most compelling parts of the book, of course, come when Hansen tells the story of the landing and first sojurn onto the lunar surface, including excerpts from recordings of conversations among the crew that were never broadcast publicly. After that, somewhat disappointingly, the book comes to a very quick close. The story rushes through the post-Apollo 11 euphoria and Armstrong's short involvement as a NASA administrator and offers vignettes showing the difficulties that he had coping with the public's fascination with him, some of which was obsessive to say the least.
All in all, though, First Man is an excellent read, and, as the official biographer to the First Man on the Moon, Hansen has done a fabulous job with the task that Armstrong assigned to him.
If you have any interest in the history of the American space program at all, this book is a must-read.
on March 8, 2007
I was 10 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong stepped on it's surface for the first time in history. As time passed, I was very impressed by the fact that Armstrong never seemed to take advantage of it.
My interest in this book was based on why he didn't take advantage of his fame (at least in a way that was public) and I have to say that the author, James R. Hansen "nailed" it! What I mean by that is that the book itself, the length, the detail, fits exactly who Neil Armstrong is and was. I have read some of the negative reviews posted here and most of them seem to complain about too much detail and/or that it was mundane. For myself I enjoyed the detail- I would rather have too many facts than not enough- the reader can always skip ahead if they feel like it. And as for being mundane, except for the exploits that Armstrong undertook over the course of his life- flying carrier aircraft over Korea during that war, test pilot flying on the edge of space and of course his work in NASA on Gemini and Apollo- his own personality seems to fit that description! This is not a slam on Armstrong at all- it is this very nature of quiet seriousness and attention to detail that helped make the first moon landing a success- which it had to be if JFK's goal was to be accomplished. For some readers this is a disappointment, but then, isn't that what a good biography does- make us know the real person better? This book -though not an autobiography- will likely be the Last Word we have on The First Man.
on December 12, 2005
One Small Step took two and a half hours.
"First Man" takes a giant leap into the personal abyss of what is known of Neil Armstrong's private life; which is what makes this book unique amongst all other books that were written in unauthorized fashion about the man. Armstrong was the first human being to ever step foot atop the lunar surface back in June of 1969 - making real President John F. Kennedy's big technological dream of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back safely within the end of the decade. Armstrong was his own person, not bowing to any other person's moods or demeanors. He was a dryly technical person who could trouble shoot and fly highly specialized aircraft like none other. He also came face-to-face with death a time or two before his big Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Armstrong lost many a close friend in fiery explosions and technical errors that were part of the Apollo journey. He himself had his share of injuries and accidents, but none of it was to interfere with his greatest achievement; landing first on the Moon. It was as if God appointed him since before his own birth to hold this distinction amongst all great pioneers. Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon....Buzz Aldrin was second, and holds the distinction of being the only astronaut properly photographed on the surface of the moon. Michael Collins was the fly-over man who completed the mission. All three men will be famous for all time: they referred to themselves as, "Amiable strangers."
They weren't especially close friends, but they were able to work for hours alongside of one another, highly focused on the tasks at hand and eager to fulfill the mission in the most professional manner.
This book starts out very dry....the first 16 chapters are chock full of reviewed technical details that are, in my opinion, quite tedious to read over. I didn't fully understand all those intricate details that were printed in this fine book, and I feel that pages and pages of these details do not contributable to the overall story of Neil Armstrong's life. But then again - every detail is important in the face and consideration of history. Mankind may never step foot on the moon ever again. A book written like this one preserves forever these tiny details for future dissection of this important mission, and the most famous triad of in the history of space exploration.
Chapters 17 through 25 start the ball rolling and we come to understand the extreme training and human endeavors that Armstrong had to face and conquer before his big mission. The decision to place Armstrong first on the Moon was discussed at length in this section of the book. Aldrin really wanted the honor very badly, but this was not meant to be.
Perhaps the most stellar of all ideology and essays conjured up in this book are contained in Chapter 26, "Dialectics of a Moon Mission." In this chapter, the author, James Hansen, attempts to describe Armstrong's persona and how the press was forever pushing to get a personal opinion out of the man. Hansen wrote that Armstrong had this "Sly privacy of a man whose thoughts may never be read." Hansen wrote that people acted like, "Psyche-eaters and psyche-gorgers," trying to figure out the inner personality of the fiercely private man. What precisely was within Armstrong's deep inner soul regarding the moon landing was always kept private within him. Hansen described Armstrong as being extraordinarily, judiciously restrained in his demeanor. Furthermore, Hansen described Armstrong as becoming an, "Oracle of ancient times, a medium, wise prophetic, mysterious, by which fortunes and misfortunes were told, deities consulted, prayers answered." It frustrated a great many people that Armstrong was so quiet with his thoughts in regards to this epic mission. Thus begins everybody's quest to understanding the psychology of astronauts...it would require one giant leap for the average American to understand the inner psyche of Neil Armstrong.
Interesting that the Apollo 11 Moon Landing Mission backed by 400,000 scientists, technicians and other assorted brainiacs resulted in the Armstrong and Aldrin Moon visit moon visit time to only 2 hours and 31 minutes and 40 seconds. On page 521 it reads, "The time between the hatch opening and its closing was two hours, thirty-one minutes and forty seconds." Neil's actual quote upon stepping foot atop the moon was, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." The two astronauts had many experiments to do in that short frame of time and that gave Aldrin an iron-clad excuse to why he did not take a single proper shot of Armstrong during their moon walk.
People were very upset with Aldrin over this omission of his duties, and to this day psychologists may argue that it was the vengeance of Aldrin.
Returning safely to Earth was the beginning of the end for our hero, Neil Armstrong, because he was sent in motion to do a world tour in celebration of his grand achievement. This made him bitter for reasons still not explained; it was as if he developed this great resentment for becoming an international icon. I personally gathered from reading this book that it meant that because he became an international treasure, he could never go up into space again. Was this the seed to his great dissatisfaction?
His wife of 38 years, Janet, became quite frustrated with Armstrong also, and decided she was going to take him to the dark side of the Moon. She filed for divorce due to his ever constant business with everyone on the planet except for her. Even though Armstrong was basically the same man he always used to be, he would never find his Sea of Tranquility with his wife ever again. He neglected her on a regular basis, and no wife can put up with that indefinitely. Janet writes that she had to wait a full year before the two of them could go on a ski holiday with their family. She finally had enough of the First Man and sadly, she never had her moment in the sun being his First Woman.
He was heartbroken over her departure from his life and due to the stress of the divorce; Armstrong had a heart attack in 1991 while on a ski holiday. He became very depressed and begged Janet to return to him, but she could no longer live with the personality of Neil Armstrong. She has since launched a life of her own and is a much happier person.
Out of the dark blue depression, Armstrong met a lively woman named Carol whom he wed in 1991. I gather that he decided that ignoring one's spouse is just not the fair way to go about being married and he changed his ways. The book tells us that today Mr. Armstrong is happy and healthy and still continues to travel the world extensively.
IN all the book contains 654 pages - it tells the tale of the greatest American technological achievement of Apollo 11. It is an excellent book that is relentless with all details regarding the Moon landing back in 1969. It even discusses people who debunk the fact that the US landed on the Moon, which I found to be quite hilarious. What I found to be most important of all is the book's explorations into the private life of a public hero, Neil Armstrong. Many people are happy that finally a book is finally written and authorized by the man - after all this time. It is high time that that world has some understanding of this highly complex and famous man. Armstrong's legacy lies in what is most humanly genuine about his life's story.
on September 15, 2014
This is a good biography of Neil Armstrong, and is chock-full of fascinating information and insights into this legendary life. James Hansen has definitely done his research, and is to be commended for all the effort he put into researching and writing this tome. However, I felt this book could have been more concise, which is why I gave this book 4 stars rather than 5. Still, this book does justice to Neil Armstrong, correcting the popular misperception that Armstrong was hostile towards the public. He was definitely reticent, and preferred to be private, but he did make public appearances, even if they were not as often as the public or news reporters wished. Another thing that really comes through in this book is that Neil's first love was always flying, and not necessarily exploration.
This is a good book for scholars who wish to study Neil Armstrong's life in depth. For those who wish to have a general overview of Neil's Armstrong's life, I would suggest you look elsewhere for a more concise book.
on April 10, 2013
I was born in '86, and although it feels as though you're born knowing the name Neil Armstrong and his most famous words upon stepping foot upon the moon, my knowledge of his life pretty much ended there.
I've recently become more interested in space and NASA, particularly Apollo 11's wondrous achievement. I gobbled down 3 books on the matter, but wanted to learn more about Armstrong's character and upbringing. I found him to be an interesting and curious fellow from what I'd read and videos I'd seen.
This appears to be the only book that would give me such a wide-range narrative of his life, especially since he contributed to the work!
I didn't mind the ancestral background in the beginning, and I enjoyed the little stories depicting his behavior and interests as a child. I must say, when the chapters moved into the various types of airplane models he flew as a naval aviator & test pilot & the many persons who interacted with him during this time, it made me want to take a couple shots of tequila (I kid, I kid).
There was an abundance of detail! But I encourage the reader to stick with this book. It's really worth your while!
Learning of his home life and the stories told from his family members and colleagues helped create a more full picture of Mr. Armstrong. I appreciate their contributions, especially those by Viola Armstrong & Janet Armstrong.
Although I'm familiar with many of Buzz Aldrin's & Michael Collins's quotes, there were some new insights which enhanced the chapters highlighting the exciting Moon Landing.
I also looked forward to understanding how Armstrong's new role in our country, the world, and forever more affected his life.
Neil Armstrong came across a level-headed, mild-mannered, focused and driven individual. I noticed how his seemingly lack of emotion gave some a bit of a sour perception of him. Mike Collins said it best when he noted how Armstrong was not "unable, but unwilling." He was a relatively private guy, non-showy!
Fortunately, he was open to discussing various topics & answering many questions within the book, which I find invaluable!
What I admire most about Armstrong is that he seemed like a genuinely good person, striving to do what was right.
And I thank Mr. Hansen for gathering the stories, opinions, data and achievements of his life for us to indulge!
I'm still blown away by our nation's accomplishments in the space industry and fascinated with the Apollo 11 mission & its crew. We sure have some great Americans representing us.
Thanks to all those who made it possible!
on February 8, 2013
Neil Armstrong may very well be the most famous astronaut to have ever lived, certainly for accomplishing the task of being the first human being to set foot on the Moon.
Armstrong was born and raised in Ohio and, even at a young age, had an interest in airplanes. He even got his pilot's license before his driver's license. He was also interested in engineering and the design of aircraft. After graduating high school, he left for college to Purdue University and also the Navy. In the Navy, he was a naval aviator who served in Korean War.
After completing college, he joined the NACA (later NASA) and became a test pilot flying the latest airplanes and doing various other aeronautical research. Most famously, he flew the experimental X-15 aircraft that took him past the speed of sound and to the edge of space.
He eventually applied to be an astronaut and was selected by NASA in their second group of astronauts in 1962. His first spaceflight came in 1966 on Gemini 8 with Dave Scott. Gemini 8 was the first mission to achieve a docking in space. It also ended up being the first major crisis in space when a faulty thruster caused the spacecraft to spin out of control, but Armstrong kept his cool and brought Gemini 8 back to safety, even though it ultimately meant the mission was cut short not being able to achieve most of its objectives.
Armstrong continued training serving as a back-up on another Gemini flight and an Apollo flight before the rotation and crew selection process had him as the commander of Apollo 11, scheduled to be the first manned Moon landing. Along with Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 flew in 1969. The entire mission is recounted with great detail in the book. Armstrong and Aldrin would conduct the first landing with Armstrong being the first to actually step foot on the lunar surface.
The astronauts returned to Earth to great fanfare and were hailed as American heroes. They toured the United States and the world afterward. For Armstrong, this meant dealing with new fame and publicity. He worked in a mostly bureaucratic position at NASA for a little while, but resigned because he was not satisfied. He also worked as a professor at the University of Cincinnati and afterward served in a variety of corporate positions. He always seemed to be busy which, in part, led to a divorce with his first wife in 1994.
I found this to be an excellent and complete (as much as can be considering it was published years before his death) biography of Neil Armstrong. It is also the only authorized biography written of Armstrong and as such the author had direct contact with Armstrong himself. I would highly recommend this book to those interested in learning more about Neil Armstrong or about the history of the U.S. space program.
Neil Armstrong was one of my boyhood heroes...how cool would it be to be the first man on the moon? I looked forward to reading this biography, and it finally made it to the top of my "to-read" list.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* James Hansen evidently had pretty good access to Armstrong. He had a wealth of personal, family and professional history, including the occasional glimpse behind the scenes. There are a few interesting tidbits and some bone-headed maneuvers throughout the years, all of which make the man "more human".
* Armstrong was evidently a very private man, and very careful about what parts of his thoughts and personality were going to be available for public discussion. Occasionally Hansen succeeds in penetrating this stoic front and capturing glimpses of Armstrong's thoughts. For example, he explains multiple times that he was not at all disappointed or angered that crew-companion Edwin Aldrin never took a picture of him while on the moon. He says multiple times that it was just the way the time-line of the moon walk worked out, and he is sure there was no "revenge" factor because Aldrin didn't get to step out of the LEM first. He repeats himself, again and again. It is not hard to get the feeling that it is something that has bothered him all these years, but he is too professional to admit.
* The book is certainly detailed. (See more thoughts below). Hansen carefully builds a portrait of Armstrong based on his personal, professional and military career of a man cool and calm under pressure, and capable of thinking his way through problems when all the alarm buzzers are flashing red. He relates a story of where Armstrong had baled out of a plane, nearly killing himself, early in the morning. Coworkers found him working at his desk that afternoon as if nothing had happened.
* The latter parts of the book, from about the time of the Gemini launches, were much better than the beginning, and held my interest. Even the explanations of his "reclusive" behavior later in life were also very revealing and captivating.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* NASA was a great believer in weight reduction, and this book could have used some of that skill. I have no interest in Armstrong's medieval ancestors, and I have strong doubts about records that old anyway. Likewise, I really don't care that his Mother made her own wedding cake, or that it was "an iced angel food cake in three graduated layers ornamented with rosebuds and garlands". The book is full of such detail, although at least in latter parts of the book the detail actually concerns the subject. It is almost as if the author was determined to use every scrap of information he could find about Armstrong, interesting or not.
* Similarly, Hansen could have added details which might not have been directly available. For example, a number of times the text mentions the problem of "roll coupling", an aerodynamic problem of high speed flight in which the inertia of an aircraft overcomes the counter-effects of its control surfaces (thanks, Google). But while the book went on for pages and pages about Armstrong's Mother's favorite teacher, it couldn't devote a paragraph or two to a phenomenon that almost killed Armstrong, twice.
* By about the first ten pages, I was sick of hearing about his Mother and her religious fervor. Enough already.
=== Summary ===
There is a lot to like about this book, but an almost equal amount to dislike. I came very close to putting the book down for good during the first 100 pages or so, but glad I kept at it, because it definitely improved as it went on. The author genuinely seemed to like Armstrong, which is fine, but seemed to let that cloud his analysis of some of the personal and professional conflicts in Neil's life. You could almost feel Hansen taking Armstrong's side in a few conflicts.
Overall, I'd recommend it to fans of the space program, but with the caveat that it is OK to skip over entire sections of the text without missing anything interesting or important.