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First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

by James R. Hansen

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7372125,224 (3.95)24
On July 20, 1969, the world stood still to watch 38-year-old American astronaut Neil A. Armstrong become the first person ever to step on the surface of another heavenly body. Upon his return to Earth, Armstrong was celebrated for his monumental achievement. He was also--as NASA historian Hansen reveals in this authorized biography--misunderstood. Armstrong's accomplishments as an engineer, a test pilot, and an astronaut have long been a matter of record, but Hansen's access to private documents and unpublished sources and his interviews with more than 125 subjects (including more than fifty hours with Armstrong himself) yield the first in-depth analysis of this elusive, reluctant hero. Hansen recreates Armstrong's flying career, from his combat missions over North Korea to his transatmospheric flights in the rocket-powered X-15 to the first-ever docking in space. For a pilot who cared more about flying to the Moon than he did about walking on it, Hansen asserts, Armstrong's storied vocation exacted a dear personal toll, paid in kind by his wife and children.--From publisher description.… (more)
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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. ( )
1 vote mattries37315 | Mar 29, 2022 |
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 | Jan 20, 2021 |
Get the audio CD's, it has actual audio and video from the missions. This is beyond fantastic. A must listen to for anyone the least bit interested in the astronauts and/or the Apollo missions. ( )
  JohnKaess | Jul 23, 2020 |
This was a pretty great biography of Neil Armstrong, but I can't give it more than 3 stars because of how it was written. The author didn't do a great job attributing all of the many quotes he used, which made keeping track of who said what pretty confusing. It was also unclear which quotes came from interviews, and which came from other biographies / autobiographies / etc. ( )
  lemontwist | Nov 24, 2019 |
This is a biography of the first man to walk on the Moon, which inspired the recent film of the same name (which I watched while reading this, and enjoyed). Armstrong was wary of potential chroniclers of his life, due to negative experiences at the hands of some journalists and other unscrupulous people in the heady immediate post-Apollo XI period, so steered clear of potential interviewers or biographers until James Hansen was able to persuade him to be interviewed extensively for this biography in 2005. Hansen says that Armstrong did not seek to influence his writing or conclusions, thus this is quite a rounded biography of the great astronaut, an authorised biography in the sense that it had access to family details and personal accounts from family members, but also maintains some critical distance from his subject.

It is quite a long biography, and also quite dry in a few places for most readers, with many technical details of various aircraft and early spacecraft in which he flew; though Armstrong would have welcomed this as he saw himself primarily as an engineer whose life was about resolving problems in this field. That said, much research has been done on his family background, which has been traced back ten generations to the first Armstrongs to emigrate from Scotland to America in the early 18th century. Neil was born in a small town in Ohio in 1930. He was fascinated by flying from an early age, and is quoted as saying that even in elementary school his intention was to be an aircraft designer. He gained a student pilot's license when he turned 16. He became a naval aviator and was taking part in the Korean War (including nearly parachuting into a minefield) in his very early 20s. He then became a test pilot, testing increasingly sophisticated aircraft that could fly higher and faster than ever before. This was a very dangerous business - far more test pilots died in flight than ever have in the whole history of spaceflight from the 1960s to date.

Neil applied for astronaut selection in 1962, shortly after the tragic death of his two year old daughter Karen from a brain tumour. Before the Apollo programme, he was command pilot in 1966 for Gemini VIII, in which, on the way back from performing the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit, he and co-pilot David Scott, went tumbling away end to end, potentially disastrously, before regaining control. This wasn't the end of Neil's brushes with death; while flying a lunar landing research vehicle in 1968, he had to parachute out seconds before it blew up. The story of Apollo XI is too well known to need recounting in this review, but suffice it to say that Armstrong's personal unflappability and resourcefulness demonstrated why he was absolutely the right person to command this first and successful attempt to land on the moon and return safely to Earth.

(As an aside on the Apollo programme, I have often thought that Apollo 8, that flew at Christmas 1968, should be better known, as its astronauts - including Jim Lovell who later commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 in 1970 - were the first humans to leave Earth’s gravitational field and actually travel to the moon's vicinity, and orbit it successfully).

After the storming success of Apollo XI, the rest of Armstrong's life was, in a sense, perforce an anti-climax. After a brief period as a NASA administrator, he spent a decade in academia and was headhunted for the boards of many companies. He spread himself too thinly, and in the end this told on his marriage, he and his wife Janet splitting in 1990 after 34 years together. He kept up his support for the space programme, such as it was, and objected, albeit politely and in a restrained manner, to the Obama administration's regrettable decision to cancel NASA's plans to return men to the Moon by 2020. Astronauts, being resilient and in peak physical condition, tend to lead long lives and Armstrong was generally in fine condition until his death from complications after heart surgery in August 2012 (slightly mysteriously, after he had been expecting to make a full recovery). His place as a giant in the history of exploration and engineering is assured, and even those who know nothing about spaceflight would recognise his famous words as he stepped onto the Moon's surface. But he never considered himself an explorer: “What I attended to was the progressive development of flight machinery. My exploration came totally as a by-product of that. I flew to the Moon not so much to go there, but as part of developing the systems that would allow it to happen.” He did that, of course, but so much more. ( )
2 vote john257hopper | Aug 11, 2019 |
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On July 20, 1969, the world stood still to watch 38-year-old American astronaut Neil A. Armstrong become the first person ever to step on the surface of another heavenly body. Upon his return to Earth, Armstrong was celebrated for his monumental achievement. He was also--as NASA historian Hansen reveals in this authorized biography--misunderstood. Armstrong's accomplishments as an engineer, a test pilot, and an astronaut have long been a matter of record, but Hansen's access to private documents and unpublished sources and his interviews with more than 125 subjects (including more than fifty hours with Armstrong himself) yield the first in-depth analysis of this elusive, reluctant hero. Hansen recreates Armstrong's flying career, from his combat missions over North Korea to his transatmospheric flights in the rocket-powered X-15 to the first-ever docking in space. For a pilot who cared more about flying to the Moon than he did about walking on it, Hansen asserts, Armstrong's storied vocation exacted a dear personal toll, paid in kind by his wife and children.--From publisher description.

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