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About the Author

James R. Hansen is a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University. A former historian for NASA, Hansen is the author of eleven books on the history of aerospace. He lives in Auburn, Alabama.

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Image credit: James R. Hansen [credit: Auburn University]

Works by James R. Hansen

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Common Knowledge



A boy from Ohio fascinated by planes and how they are engineered one day becomes the most famous man on the planet by stepping onto the Moon. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong is the authorized biography of the Apollo 11 commander by James R. Hansen.

Hansen centers the biography on the Apollo 11 mission, which from the decision to name Neil Armstrong commander to his return home. The first quarter and the final quarter of the biography literally bookends those approximately eight months with the former detailing Armstrong’s childhood passion for flight that led to his career as a test pilot then astronaut and the later detailing how the modest Armstrong adjusted—or did not—to worldwide fame that only lessened in everyday life as he grew older. Given the number of pages that Hansen concentrated on Armstrong’s time with NASA, there are a lot of vehicle abbreviations that need to be negotiated when reading but Hansen does a good job in make sure readers learn the terms however if one doesn’t pay attention, you can miss something and get confused. Yet this book is a fantastic read thanks to Hansen’s interviews of Armstrong and his extensive research into the Apollo 11 logs which flesh out those momentous July days for those not alive to experience them.

First Man is a very well written biography that blends NASA archived logs, author interviews of Armstrong, and interviews of fellow Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
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1 vote
mattries37315 | 20 other reviews | Mar 29, 2022 |
I honestly was not sure what to expect when I borrowed this book from the library. I just knew the title seemed pretty interesting, and I was looking forward to finding out more about how we came to what we know now about aerodynamics and aviation.

This book (and apparently there are other volumes as well) takes several dozen important papers, essays, or other documents related to the important milestones in aviation and reprints them, but also includes commentary on each of the documents to put them in context. Some of the papers are short or easy reads. Others are really in-depth technical papers with enough calculus to make even my eyes start to water. (I definitely did not read all of the papers.)

I found the context to be the most interesting, and while I started to read all of the papers, I certainly did not finish reading all of them. So I don't think this book is really meant to be a book that you read all the way through necessarily. Having those papers and documents is important but makes this book a real drag at times. (Pun totally intended.)

Okay, now that I've explained how this book is structured... the best part about this book is getting to see that progression from an aeroplane being literally a plane (2-dimensional surface) that is placed in the air to something that we understand and are trying to make better, and also call an airplane.

What really floored me was the stuff people understood at the very beginning: stability (especially about the lateral axis), mechanical turbulence, aspect ratio... I guess I had no idea where folks like the Wright brothers started from, knowledge-wise. Technology never comes from a vacuum, there's always a critical mass of preceding knowledge, but what was present (mechanical turbulence!) and what was lacking (angle of attack!) I found to be kind of surprising.

There were definitely papers where people talked about surprising loss of lift during encounters with gusts, and a modern reader is like "the airplane stalled!" and the author of the paper in 1908 or whatever clearly doesn't understand the phenomenon yet. Or they'll talk about an airplane being able to fly, but only close to the ground. And the modern reader wants to take them gently by the shoulders and say "it's called ground effect!" Or when they'd discuss the amount an airplane would fly forward vs. vertically and I wanted to say "yeah L/D!"

And as I read this book, I saw this evolution in papers. The term angle of attack started to be used. The term stall was used. Eventually you hear about L over D ratios. So that evolution was really neat. Without naming it, somebody starts to discuss the phenomena of floating that occurs close to a runway and how it affects landing distance. You start to hear about the development of flaps and slots and variable-pitch props.

Even the terminology evolves. Aeroplanes become airplanes. Screw-type thrust devices become propellers. And so on.

This book, covering roughly late 1800s to 1930ish, also talks about how to measure things. How do we quantify aircraft performance? What instruments do we use? How do they work? How do we measure aerodynamic forces and moments in wind tunnels? I think we take for granted how easy it is to measure things nowadays. My watch has more sophisticated measuring sensors than an early 20th century state-of-the-art lab. So reading about how people measured things that, these days, would be trivial, was really cool as well. And on the other hand: WE STILL USE PITOT TUBES!

So I think from a history of technology perspective, this book consistently impressed me and kept me going through the nearly 700 pages. If you're into aviation, there's bound to be some nuggets in here that you find worth it as well. If the length of the book intimidates you, I'd suggest reading the introduction to each chapter, and all of the commentary, and skip the actual historical documents themselves. It makes for a fascinating book either way.
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lemontwist | Jun 25, 2021 |
Interesting, but not as enjoyable as I hoped. The chapters on the Gemini and Apollo missions were the big highlights. Most of the rest was a slog.
tgraettinger | 20 other reviews | Jan 20, 2021 |
In 1962 John W. Young, a Naval Aviator, was selected to the second group of NASA astronauts. Young's career at NASA is one of the most storied and he talks about it in 'Forever Young'. This is an excellent book with interesting details about the challenges NASA faced flying to the moon and the atmosphere of competition for crew selection among the astronauts. Anyone interested in the space program needs to read this book.
Steve_Walker | 1 other review | Sep 13, 2020 |



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