A giant leap that left few traces

First Man
January 20, 2006

The modest man who made news as leader of the Moon mission merits his fame, says Patrick Moore

It is now more than 30 years since Neil Armstrong took his "one small step" on to the bleak rocks of the lunar Sea of Tranquillity. The Moon had been reached; a new era had begun. Armstrong will be remembered as long as humanity survives, but what sort of a man was he, and how did he come to be selected for this unique honour?

This is the first full-length biography of him. The author, a professor of history at Auburn University, Alabama, is well qualified to write it, and let it be said at once that his book is an outstanding success. It has been immaculately researched and is packed with detail, but written in a way that will appeal to readers of all kinds. The newcomer to science will enjoy the book as much as the more knowledgeable student and it is completely accurate; I am in a position to judge, inasmuch as I know Neil and the other Apollo astronauts, and was broadcasting on BBC television all through the missions. This is an authorised biography and Armstrong has co-operated to the full. Otherwise, it could not possibly have been written.

Armstrong's upbringing was happy and conventional. From the outset he was fascinated by flying and earned his pilot's licence before he was qualified to drive an automobile. "He never had a girl. He didn't need a car," said his father. "All he had to do was to get out to that airport."

Academically he was above average without being brilliant. He became a naval aviator and was then selected for the first intake of Nasa astronauts after the Original Seven. He had no problems with training and was one of several astronauts who might have been first to the Moon; he was always a strong candidate and his calmness and skill impressed those who were to make the choice.

When the Apollo crews were selected, Armstrong was teamed with Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin and Michael Collins on Apollo 11 . These three were very different people and Hansen aptly describes them as "amiable strangers", but they worked well together, and the Apollo 11 mission was as faultless as space missions can ever be.

Of course there were disputes - which Hansen does not attempt to gloss over - particularly concerning who would be "first down"; as Collins would remain in orbit during the Moon walk, it was always going to be either Armstrong or Aldrin. Aldrin made no secret of the fact that he expected to be given priority and was deeply disappointed when the news was broken to him. Armstrong, predictably, was much less concerned.

Unfortunately, the story has been spread that Aldrin, angry at being number two instead of number one, deliberately avoided taking any pictures of Armstrong on the lunar surface. It is quite true that almost all of the pictures are of Aldrin, but apparently this was overlooked at the time, and Hansen clearly has little faith in the claim that the photographic record was distorted for personal reasons. Knowing Aldrin as I do, I am quite sure that he would never stoop to anything so petty. Let us hope that we have heard the last of this particular rumour.

Incidentally, there has been some confusion about Armstrong's first words as he stepped off the end of the ladder. He meant to say: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind", but the "a" was lost, which under the circumstances was quite understandable. Today, politically correct fanatics would no doubt attack him for not saying "humankind" - blissfully unaware that the correct name for our species is Homo sapiens !

Apollo 11 was a triumph. Had it failed, the course of space research would have been different and there would not now be serious plans to establish bases on the Moon and send expeditions to Mars. The success was linked with the crew of the spacecraft. It might have been expected that on return to Earth they would have remained a closely knit trio, just as some aircrews (including mine) did after the Second World War, but this did not happen. As Hansen points out, they were not sufficiently alike.

Of course the peak of Armstrong's career was the flight of Apollo 11 and everything that followed was bound to be anti-climactic. Moreover, there were disadvantages so far as he was concerned, because he did not easily adapt to having become arguably the most famous man on the planet.

Armstrong did not stay with Nasa, although he always kept in close touch and was ready with comment and advice whenever asked. He did not, like Aldrin, spend a great deal of his time whipping up general enthusiasm for space research or become a full-time space artist, like Al Bean. Instead, he kept out of the limelight as much as possible and for a while became a lecturer in engineering at the University of Cincinnati; he took up various directorships and in 1979 became national spokesman for the Chrysler Corporation. All this was very different from walking on the surface of the Moon, but Armstrong was always very careful "not to take advantage of his fame", which would have been only too easy for him.

Armstrong was married to his first wife, Janet, for 38 years, and there were three children. The first, Karen, died at the age of two - a tragedy from which both her parents were very slow to recover. Of the two boys, one, Eric (Rick) became a biologist, while the second, Mark, concentrated on computers. Janet was immensely supportive all through the Apollo period and the Armstrongs gave every impression of being a happy and united family. Yet, in the end, Janet filed for divorce. There was no acrimony, the two had simply drifted apart, and Hansen is justified in saying that the main fault was Neil's. Like it or not, he could not avoid official functions and - no doubt unintentionally - these took precedence over his home life. Later he married again; in the book it is recorded that Janet "wished him well and is still trying to understand him".

Armstrong has been accused of shutting himself off from the world, but Hansen disposes of this very quickly. "Neil Armstrong seems today to be a very happy man - although he technically "retired" in the spring of 2002, he remains as busy as ever, travelling round the world, giving speeches, attending events." This does not sound like the behaviour of a recluse.

When asked why, after so many years, he had at last consented to an official biography, Armstrong answered simply: "It was time."

This is an important book, and should be in every scientific library. There is a black-and-white photographic section, and references extensive enough to satisfy any historian. The author is to be warmly congratulated - and so too are the publishers - for keeping the price down to an acceptable Pounds 20.

Sir Patrick Moore is an astronomer and author. His most recent book is The Sky at Night 2001-2005.

First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong

Author - James R. Hansen
Publisher - Simon and Schuster
Pages - 769
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7432 5963 7

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