Book Review: First Man, the Life of Neil Armstrong

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First Man
The Life of Neil Armstrong
by James Hansen

James Hansen is a history professor at Auburn University who has spent 25 years studying and writing the history of space. In the book the "First Man", he provided the most comprehensive analysis of Neil Armstrong. There are 648 fact-filled pages, which are supplemented by another 121 pages of acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, index, and photo credits. And well "First Man" is, as Hansen himself notes, "an authorized biography more candid, honest, and unvarnished than most unauthorized biographies."

"The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." James Hansen makes it clear that throughout his life, Armstrong has been his own man, consistent, focused, quiet, and private.

Well, I found two main strengths in this comprehensive and well researched biography. The first is the torrent of information detailing Armstrong's life experiences which prepared him for the launch of Apollo 11. I learn that he was born at 12:31:30 a.m., not just 12:31 on August 5, 1930. Neil is the Scottish form of the Gaelic for "cloud" or, in modern terms, "champion." At age 3 he got his first model airplane. His mother agonized whether to get the 10- or 20-cent plane; she got the latter. In 1947 he stood 5'9.5", weighed 144 pounds, had a chest of 33", a waist of 29", and a blood pressure of 118 over 84. This is a catalogue of a life, a CPA's often dry ledger sheet. Yet, this information builds a solid foundation on which to examine and understand the Neil Armstrong who walked on the moon and the consequences to his life thereafter.

The second strength is the series of chapters on the flight of Apollo 11, 158 pages. This section is equally, maybe more detailed, but it is so much more focused. Details here never seem to be superfluous; they support and reinforce the enormous difficulty of the flight, the landing, and the return to earth. The prose sparkles here, and the most mundane communications between the...
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