That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
Nearly every reader will instantly recognize this quote as the famous words that astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered as he became the first man to ever set foot on the moon. NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice, and research, was truly an achievement for all of humanity. Armstrong’s words both acknowledged this achievement as well as his unique place in it, ensuring the moment that he said them that they would be repeated many times over in news stories, history classrooms, and books for years to come. However, once Armstrong returned safely from the moon with his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Jr. and Michael Collins, he did not seek out further fame. In fact, Armstrong was notoriously private and refused most interviews. That’s why First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by historian James R. Hansen, was such a revelation and a New York Times bestseller when it was published in 2005. First Man won various awards including the American Astronautical Society's Prize for Astronautical Literature, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Outstanding Book Award, and CHOICE magazine's Outstanding Academic Book of 2006. Even other legendary astronauts took note – Captain James A. Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, called it “an excellent book” that “expertly combines the saga of Armstrong with the historical background of America’s introduction to the Age of Space.”
Hansen’s work is the only authorized biography of Neil Armstrong. Hansen, a professor emeritus at Auburn University (the alma mater of six astronauts including Jim Voss and Charlie Duke), has written about the intersections of history, science, and technology for more than thirty years, with a particular interest in aerospace history. Thanks to this background, Armstrong chose to place his trust in Hansen and gave him unprecedented access to private documents and sources unavailable anywhere else, including more than fifty hours of personal interview time. Hansen wound up interviewing 125 subjects to create an in-depth picture of Armstrong that covers far more than just the Apollo 11 mission.
In addition to being the first person to walk on the moon, Neil Alden Armstrong was an aerospace engineer, naval aviator, test pilot, and university professor. First Man covers all the facets of Armstrong’s life, including his childhood and his personal life. In a detail-packed narrative that includes everything from Armstrong’s favorite childhood model planes to his college grades, Hansen provides a vivid picture of Armstrong’s life. Aviation buffs will love the in-depth discussion of military and space-related aircraft as well as details about Armstrong’s flight career, which includes seventy-eight combat missions as a naval aviator flying over North Korea, daring transatmospheric flights in the rocket-powered X-15, and even the piloting of spacecraft Gemini VIII for the first-ever docking in space.
Despite Armstrong’s well-documented desire for privacy, there are lots of personal details too; Hansen interviewed many of Armstrong’s closest family members, including his mother, Viola, and there are some discussions about his marriages, relationships with his children, and his religious beliefs as well. Coming in at 784 pages, it’s safe to say that if you are looking for all the details, including things like Armstrong’s heart rate on liftoff (146 beats per minute) and the smell of moon dust, it's here. In fact, the only real criticism of this work is that the minutiae sometimes weigh it down like drag on an airplane. However, one can understand why Hansen chose to include everything given his unique opportunity to pull back the veil on this very public figure’s private life.
After Armstrong passed away in August of 2012, First Man took on a new significance since the legendary astronaut is no longer here to share the details of his life and his inner thoughts. Now a film version of First Man (that focuses on the period from 1961-1969) has been announced for 2018 with Hollywood star Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy, an actress receiving wide acclaim for her roles in Wolf Hall and The Crown, playing the role of Neil’s wife, Janet Armstrong. The movie is currently filming in Atlanta, Georgia where Hansen has frequently consulted on set. If you’re like me and always prefer to read the book before seeing the film, now would be a great time to check out First Man – just in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing too, coming up in 2019.