Author: James R. Hansen
Release: October 18, 2005
Tagline: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, History, Space Exploration, Engineering, Flight
Main Character: Neil A. Armstrong
Synopsis: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong from childhood to Vietnam, from the Moon to Washington, to the campus and retirement.
Declassified by Agent Palmer: 11 Mission Highlights from First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen
Quotes and Lines
Landing on the Moon was a shared global event which nearly all humankind felt transcended politics.
After human explorers violated the Moon with footprints and digging tools, who again could ever find romance in poet John Keats’s question, “What is there in thee, moon, that thou shouldst move my heart so potently?”
Shortly before liftoff, CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid, who at age sixty-six was seeing his first manned shot, described the scene to Walter Cronkite’s television audience: “Walter… as we sit here today… I think the [English] language is being altered… How do you say ‘high as the sky’ anymore, or ‘the sky is the limit’—what does that mean?”
With ten minutes left on the clock, the thoughtful Eric Sevareid said on-air to Cronkite, “There’s not a carnival atmosphere here, really. You’ve got the snack shops and all the rest, all the trailers, but there is a quiet atmosphere, and when the can carrying the astronauts themselves went by on this roadway just now, there was a kind of hush among the people. Those things move very slowly as though they’re carrying nitroglycerin or something. You get a feeling that people think of these men as not just superior men but different creatures. They are like people who have gone into the other world and have returned, and you sense they bear secrets that we will never entirely know, and that they will never entirely be able to explain.”
Neil read a lot as a child and that was his escape. IT wasn’t an escape from anything; it was an escape to something, into a world of imagination. As a boy he felt secure enough to risk escaping, because he knew, upon returning, he would be in a nice place.
– June Armstrong Hoffman
Accompanying Armstrong’s senior class picture in the Blume High School yearbook for 1946-47 was the telling epigram, “He thinks, he acts, tis done.”
Sometime during his adolescence Neil began to have a recurring dream: “I could, by holding my breath, hover over the ground. Nothing much happened. I neither flew nor fell in those dreams; I just hovered. But the indecisiveness was a little frustrating. There was never any end to the dream.”
In Tsiolkovskii’s view, a human future in space was inevitable. “The Earth is the cradle of civilization,” he wrote, “but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”
For Neil, however, this new era in flight dawned bittersweet. “By the time I was old enough and became a pilot, things had changed. The great airplanes I had so revered as a boy were disappearing. I had grown up admiring what I perceived to be the chivalry of the World War I pilots—Frank Luke, Eddie Rickenbacker, Manfred von Richthofen, and Billy Bishop. But by World War II, aerial chivalry seemed to have evaporated….Air warfare was becoming very impersonal. The record-setting flights—[John] Alcock and [A. W.] Brown, [Harold] Gatty, [Charles] Lindbergh, [Amelia] Earhart, and [Jimmy] Mattern—across the oceans, over the poles, and to the corners of Earth, had all been accomplished. And I resented that. All in all, for someone who was immersed in, fascinated by, and dedicated to flight, I was disappointed by the wrinkle in history that had brought me along one generation late. I had missed all the great times and adventures in flight.”
For the rest of his life, engineering would be Armstrong’s primary professional identity. Even during his years as a test pilot and as an astronaut, Neil considered himself first and foremost an aeronautical engineer, one whose ambition to write an engineering textbook set him apart from virtually all of his fellow fliers. It is only in this context that one can truly understand a statement that a frustrated Armstrong would make to a Cincinnati newspaper reporter in 1976: “How long must it take before I cease to be known as a spaceman?”
Two of the most important—and rarely acknowledged—points about the Apollo lunar landing program are that it was engineering—much more than science—that accomplished the moon landing, and that an engineer, not a scientist, was the first to set foot on another world.
For Armstrong, it turned out that ill Fate was not the hunter. Rather, it was almost as if the young flier was being safeguarded so as to become the grand prize of some extraordinary Destiny.
“So most of the things that happened in the book…were actual events,” Armstrong recounts. “I thought The Bridges at Toko-Ri was an excellent representation of the kinds of flying we were doing there. It was identical, same kind of aircraft and the same class carrier.”
Armstrong says of the VF-51 aviators: “If they had that choice, on most days they’d say, ‘I ought to go fly, go face those guns again. I’d rather do that than stay here and read.’ Because they were that kind of people. They enjoyed flying” and kept close track of how many missions they had flown, how many cat shots they had made, how many carrier landings achieved, and so forth, not wanting the other guys to get ahead of them. To the very last days of the cruise, as Hal Schwan explains, “It wasn’t a question of how difficult it was to fly so many missions; rather, it was more a question of trying to get out on more missions than you were scheduled.”
…proving the adage that it was much easier to make a pilot out of an engineer than it was to make an engineer out of a pilot.
The only real uncertainty about Armstrong’s choice as an astronaut in 1962 came down to whether he, Neil A. Armstrong, personally wanted to become an astronaut.
For why choose to become an astronaut when Armstrong was already so deeply and so creatively involved in what were the biggest, most technically challenging flight programs ever attempted? Two of these programs—the X-15 and Dyna-Soar—had as their goal not just flying piloted winged vehicles at hypersonic speeds, but flying them transatmospherically, into and back from space.
They say “no man is an island”; well, Neil is kind of an island. . . . Sometimes what he was thinking and his inner thoughts were more interesting to him than somebody else’s thoughts were to him, so why should he leave his island, go wading out into the shallows to shake hands with somebody, when he’s perfectly happy back in his little grass hut or wherever.
-Michael Collins, Gemini X and Apollo 11 Astronaut
The heavy, private burden borne by an astronaut’s wife was not unlike the uncertainty felt by the wives of the sailors who took the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria across the unknown seas to find a new world five hundred years ago.
-Eugene Cernan, Gemini IX, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17 Astronaut
“Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.” With these historic words, expressed before a joint session of Congress on Thursday morning, May 25, 1961, the dynamic forty-three-year-old president threw down the gauntlet: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. . . . It will not be one man going to the Moon, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
“Although the astronauts along the way did enjoy some fun and games, by and large they were the hardest-working bunch of guys I ever knew. Nearly every one of them was motivated on the morning of the flight not to let ‘the program’ down.” (George M. Low)
In retrospect, treating docked spacecraft as a single system was, in Kranz’s judgement, one of the most important lessons to come from the entire Gemini program: “It had a profound effect on our future success as flight controllers. It was a lesson that proved valuable when the second potentially fatal in-flight emergency happened, in 1970 during Apollo 13. (lessons of Gemini VIII)
Members of the press who covered the NASA beat knew about a few of the indiscretions, but such things just were not reported in 1960s America.
“It’s always hard to lose friends, but it was a common occurrence in the world I lived in.”
“It never, never shows in Neil that he’s had a very distressed day. He does not bring his worries home. I don’t like to ask him questions about his work,” Janet related, “because he lives with it too much already. But I love it when someone else asks him about his work, and I can sit and listen to it all.”
The specter of dead astronauts sailing around the Moon haunted those who were responsible for the Apollo program and made objective evaluation of its merits unusually difficult.
“Deke laid out his thinking about Apollo 11 and asked how I felt about having Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin as my crew. We talked about it a little bit, and I didn‘t have any problem with that. And Deke said that Buzz wasn’t necessarily so easy to work with, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve been working with him the last few months [in the backup role for Apollo 8] and everything seems to be going all right.’ But I knew what Deke was saying. Then he said he wanted to make Jim Lovell available for Apollo 11 even though it would be a little bit out of sequence, but that’s what he’d do, if that is what I thought I needed. I would have been happy to get Lovell. Jim was a very reliable guy, very steady. I had a lot of conﬁdence in him. It would have been highly unusual for the crew assignment to have worked out this way but Deke offered the possibility that it would be Jim Lovell and Mike Collins as my crew.”
“I do about as well in liberal arts as I do in the sciences, and I don’t do particularly well in any of them. I’d rather do something than study about it or talk about it.” – Collins
Joan came to think of her husband as “a curious mixture of magnificent confidence bordering on conceit, and humility.” -Joan Aldrin on Buzz
“There was a hell of a difference between those three men,” said Guenter Wendt, the head of the White Room Crew at the Cape. As the chief technician responsible for the final sealing of the astronauts into their capsule, Wendt (nicknamed “The Launchpad Führer” for his German accent and Teutonic exactness) saw all the Apollo crews in action over the course of many training and launch days, and he never say anything like the crew of Apollo 11. “Although they were totally competent, they just didn’t seem to gel as a team. Usually when a mission crew was named, they stuck together like glue. You saw one, you saw all three, together. But these three, they never did. When they drove up to the pad for tests, it was always in three separate cars. If we broke for lunch, they always drove away separately. There did not seem to be much camaraderie between the three men. I’ve always said that they were the first crew who weren’t really a crew.”
“Neil was Neil. Calm, quiet, and absolute confidence. We all knew that he was the Lindbergh type. He had no ego. He was not of that mind that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the first man on the Moon!’ That was never what Neil had in his head. The most Neil had ever said about it might have been that he wanted to be the first test pilot on the Moon or the first flier to land on the Moon. If you would have said to him, ‘You are going to be the most famous human being on Earth for the rest of your life,’ he would have answered. ‘Then I don’t want to be the first man on the Moon.’ But he probably knew it was his obligation to do so. On the other hand, Aldrin desperately wanted the honor and wasn’t quiet in letting it be known. Neil had said nothing. It wasn’t his nature to push himself into any spotlight. He was much like Bob Gilruth himself, content to do the job and then go home.
“Not once did we criticize Buzz for his strongly held positions or for his ambition. The unspoken feeling was that we admired him and that we wanted people to speak their mind. But did we think Buzz was the man who would be our best representative to the world, the man who would be legend? We didn’t. We had two men to choose from, and Neil Armstrong, reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic, was our only choice.
“The only real concerns involved the unknowns that we couldn’t simulate, because we didn’t know what they were.”
“The geologists had a wonderful theory they called the ‘theory of least astonishment.’ According to the theory, when you tan into a particular rock formation, you hypothesized how it might have occurred and created as many scenarios as you could think of as to how it might have gotten there. But the scenario that was the least astonishing was the one you were supposed to accept as the basis for further analysis. I found that fascinating. It was an approach to logic that I had never experienced in engineering.”
Besides checking on their health (Dr. Berry reported to the press that the crew was “in excellent physical shape” and looked “amazingly relaxed”), the doctor wanted to catalog all organisms that were apparently normal to the three men’s systems. A growing fear from the scientific community that hostile, alien organisms might accompany the astronauts and their rock samples back to Earth—a concern hyped by the publication of the sensational Michael Crichton novel The Andromeda Strain, a June 1969 Book-of-the-Month Club selection—had persuaded (even forced) NASA to take every possible preventative measure against contamination from extraterrestrial life.
Armstrong had mastered “computerese.” Instead of saying “we,” Neil convoluted the English language and said, “A joint exercise has demonstrated.” Instead of saying “other choices,” her referred to “peripheral secondary objectives.” Rather than “doing our best,” it was “obtaining maximum advantage possible.” To “turn on” and “turn off” became “enable” and “disable.” Mailer, who had rejected in disgust his own college education as an engineer, saw in Neil’s vernacular proof not only that “the more natural forms of English had not been built for the computer” but that Armstrong represented “either the end of the old or the first of the new men.”
Another news item read to Apollo 11 by Mission Control that morning said that “Vice President Spiro T. Agnew has called for putting a man on Mars by the year 2000, but Democratic leaders replied that priority must go to needs of Earth. Agnew, the ranking government official at the Apollo 11 blastoff Wednesday, apparently was speaking for himself and not necessarily for the Nixon administration.” “Right on, Spiro!” was Mike Collin’s off-air reaction.
Indeed, going back all the way to his boyhood fall from a backyard tree, most of the high drama in Armstrong’s life lay more in his “comings down” than his “goings up.” Not that his ascents did not take extreme concentration and skill. Still, it was the descents that ultimately posed the greatest challenge and danger—and defined his destiny.
That evening at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington an anonymous someone placed a small bouquet of flowers on the grave of John F. Kennedy, without whom (even though his reasons for doing so were mostly political) there would have been no Moon landing program. The note on the bouquet read: “Mr. President, the Eagle has landed.”
One of Safire’s statements covered the hypothetical scenario of the astronauts managing to land on the Moon but then not being able to get off it.
In Event of Moon Disaster:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
When asked how he prefers for historians to quote his statement, Neil answers only somewhat facetiously, “They can put it in parentheses.”
“When an idea runs for the first time through your own mind, it comes out as an original thought.”
The packet contained two Soviet-made medals, in honor of the deceased cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the Earth, who died in a MiG-15 accident in March 1967; and Vladimir Komarov, killed a month after Gagarin at the conclusion of his Soyuz 1 flight when his spacecraft’s descent parachute failed to open. Also in the packet was an Apollo 1 patch commemorating Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Also inside was a small gold olive branch pin, symbolic of the peaceful nature of the American Moon landing program. The token was identical to the pins that the three Apollo 11 astronauts were carrying as gifts for their wives.
“Neil can be thoughtful, but he does not give much time to being thoughtful, or at least to expressing it.” – Janet Armstrong
When pilots really get worried is when they run out of options and run out of time simultaneously.
At 11:00 P.M. Houston time, still Monday, July 21, Mission Control gave Columbia the go-ahead for Trans-Earth Injection. Collins later called TEI “the get us out of here, we don’t want to be a permanent Moon satellite” maneuver. What it amounted to was a two-and-a-half-minute burn of the service propulsion engine that was to send them home by increasing their velocity to 6,188 miles per hour, the speed necessary to escape lunar orbit. If TEI did not go well, as Neil explains, “we would have been in for a long, lonely ride.”
Near the end of their stay, each astronaut, as federal government employees, was asked to fill out an expense report for their flight to the Moon. Filled out for them to sign, the forms read: “From Houston, Tex., to Cape Kennedy, Fla., to the Moon, to the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii and return to Houston, Tex.” The astronauts had traveled by “Government Aircraft, Government Spacecraft, USN Hornet, USAF Plane.” Their total reimbursement was for $33.31.
Just prior to reentry, Jim Lovell had warned the Apollo 11 astronauts, “Backup crew is still standing by. I just want to remind you that the most difficult part of your mission is going to be after recovery.”
“Mystery, however, is a very necessary ingredient in our lives. Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis for man’s desire to understand. Who knows what mysteries will be solved in our lifetime, and what new riddles will become the challenge of the new generations?”
I think that people should be recognized for their achievements and the value that adds to society’s progress. But it can be easily overdone. I think highly of many people and their accomplishments, but I don’t believe that that should be paramount over the actual achievements themselves. Celebrity shouldn’t supersede the things they’ve accomplished.
-Neil A. Armstrong to Author, Cincinnati, OH, June 2, 2004.
I recognize that I am portrayed as staying out of the public eye, but from my perspective it doesn’t seem that way, because I do so many things, go so many places. I give so many talks, I write so many papers, that, from my point of view, it seems like I don’t know how I could do more. But I realize that, from another perspective, outside, I’m only able to accept one percent of all the requests that come in, so to them it seems like I’m not doing anything. But I can’t change that. – Neil A. Armstrong to Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley, Houston, TX, September 19, 2001.
“I had had a lot of university invitations by this point but most of them–far and away the majority of them–were invitations to be considered for university presidencies. I just wanted to be a professor.”
“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector nerdy engineer. And I take substantial pride in the accomplishments of my profession.” Armstrong
Neil went on to say: “Science is about what is; engineering is about what can be.”
To his credit, he often humorously related, “the future is not something I know a great deal about. But I did live in Washington for a time and learned that lack of knowledge about a subject is no impediment to talking about it.”
“The need to build a new world is what lifts man’s horizons in search of the future. Without these horizons, a man turns inward and is concerned only with himself. With them, he thinks more about tomorrow than today, more about society than himself.”
“Human character. This is the area where we’ve made the least progress–learning about the brain, about our behavior and the ways we relate to one another. I think that’s the most important direction we can take in the next twenty years, basically to begin to understand ourselves.”
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” – Richard Feynman
“We know the advancement of knowledge and the rate of progress is proportional to the risk encountered. . . . The success of the endeavor will also be dependent on the degrees to which the aerospace community, government, industry, and academia can coalesce their forces and converge on a common goal.”
Anne’s description of the Apollo 8 launch, published in Life, was in my mind the only one that was able to communicate what it was really like to see and feel a liftoff.”
Armstrong, because he was so hard to know, turned out to be myth personified, an enigma prime to be filled with meaning.
The high price of celebrity was a heavy burden that all of the early astronauts and their families had to pay, but none more dearly than the First Man–as personally unwanted as his status as a celebrity and global icon particularly was. It was an unwanted, unasked for, but inevitable, legacy that Armstrong shared with his hero, Lindbergh.
One of the consistent themes in Neil’s presentations is “junk science,” how a small amount of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and how society should not draw a sweeping conclusion when knowledge about a subject is noticeably incomplete.
The result, I believe, is an exceptionally rare type of book: an authorized biography more candid, honest, and unvarnished than most unauthorized biographies.