First Man
James R Hansen

The Life of Neil A. Armstrong


The preview for First Man, the new film starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, dramatizes the moment when Armstrong and David Scott approach the capsule that will take them into space for the Gemini VIII mission. Gemini VIII was one of a series of missions carried out to practice techniques and prove the technology for the Apollo missions. Far from being high tech, everything looks somewhat gerry rigged. There is a lot of noise and the lights, suspended from chains, shake about, suggesting to the film’s modern audience the possible lunacy these men are engaging in by trusting to this 1960s technology. As it turned out, Gemini VIII was the first Gemini mission to almost fail, when the pod and Agena vehicle it was attached to spun out of control.

When I was in junior high school, only a decade after the first Moon landing, we were given an assignment about it, and I remember doing a rather nice diagram of all the critical stages of the journey to and from the Moon. Since then I’ve always been interested in space. I once considered the possibility of building a personal observatory and for a long time subscribed to space periodicals and tried my hand at photographing stars on long exposure (more about this later). It’s little wonder that Armstrong’s biography, on the cusp of the film being released in Australia, was such a compelling read.

This 2018 edition of James Hansen’s 2005 book has been rewritten in the light of Armstrong’s death in 2012, with a new preface that considers the meaning of the 1969 mission and Armstrong’s legacy as a man who had become an icon. The preface quotes in full three of the seventy goodwill messages that were microscopically inscribed upon a small silicon disk which the astronauts left upon the Moon. They were the three messages Armstrong recalled when asked about it by Hansen in one of their interviews for this book. The message from the Ivory Coast hoped that the mission would put into perspective how insignificant the problems which torture men are. The Belgian message talked of how the mission might bring about a consciousness of humankind’s responsibilities, to help achieve more justice and more happiness. And the message from Costa Rica hoped for:

[a] new determination for justice and liberty, as they correspond to the respect owed each human being and in favour of a major diffusion of love of one’s neighbour, whose efforts we can hope will be stimulated by the spirit of humanity derived from a more clear and vivid awareness of the minuteness of this planet…

In contrast to this epic event stands Armstrong himself, a quiet, unassuming man who for the most part avoided the press in the decades after the landing. Hansen alludes to these qualities in his preface, and throughout his book he paints the portrait of a man who was intelligent, courageous focussed, analytical, sometimes appearing emotionally distanced, somewhat naïve concerning how people might use him, and who was perplexed by the adoration and credit he received, because he saw his achievement as the result of the effort of over 400,000 people. Hansen uses, or quotes others who use epithets like ‘saint’ and ‘guru’ to describe Armstrong, and suggests that his enigmatic aloofness gave licence to those who would pour meaning into his achievement and leave them hungry for his presence and opinions decades after Apollo 11 splashed back into the Pacific.

Hansen’s portrait is highly skilful because he has to present both a lot of technical information about Armstrong’s work and the space program, but also bring to life the character and possible inner life and emotions of a man who seemed emotionally distant. Of Armstrong’s speaking to the press, Hansen relates how Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, became frustrated at Armstrong’s laconic style: [he] surrendered words about as happily as a hound allowed meat to be pulled out of his teeth. Mailer considered Armstrong’s language convoluted, like a kind of computerese: Instead of saying ‘we’, Neil convoluted the English language and said, ‘A joint exercise has demonstrated.’ Instead of saying ‘other choices’, he referred to ‘peripheral secondary objectives.’ Rather than ‘doing our best’, it was ‘obtaining maximum possible advantage.’ Hansen speaks a great deal about Armstrong’s personality in the biography. He contrasts Armstrong with Aldrin, suggesting that Armstrong’s emotional reserve was a strength for his work, and even suggests that it was his personality that was a decisive factor in his choice to be first on the Moon instead of Aldrin, which broke with the protocol of the Gemini missions where the commander remained in the capsule or exited second when his pilot did a spacewalk. Aldrin was too fiery, the wrong image, Hansen suggests, based upon interviews with NASA officials and other documents. Despite a campaign mounted by both Aldrin and his father, NASA insisted Armstrong would be first out and ended up giving technical reasons to placate Aldrin. Despite the provocation, Armstrong remained cool and never entered the debate.

Yet Hansen is also interested in Armstrong as a family man and husband. He documents the loss of Janet and Neil’s daughter, Karen, in 1962, who was first detected with a brain tumour when she was two years old. Armstrong and Janet eventually divorced over two decades after the Moon landing. Hansen paints a portrait of a husband who was kind, thoughtful and loyal, but who was emotionally reserved and prioritised his career and other commitments over his family. Neil returned to work about a week after his daughter’s death, leaving his wife along to cope with her grief. Hansen asserts, There is no question that Karen’s death shattered Neil to the core, and looks for evidence in his narrative – some dangerous and uncharacteristic mishaps while test-piloting shortly afterwards, as well as his gravitation to a young girl who reminded him of his daughter – but Hansen is never able to convincingly probe Armstrong’s psychology at his most private.

Hansen tells other interesting anecdotes as well. Armstrong got his pilot licence before he got a car licence. He crashed his father’s car not long after getting his licence, and at Edward’s Air Force Base nobody wanted to ride with Neil. It is not hard to see the irony in this, given that Armstrong piloted the Lunar Module to the surface of the Moon. Hansen also gives a good account of Armstrong’s pathway into the space program; his initial interest in engineering, his love of flying, his service as a fighter pilot in Fighter Squadron 51 during the Korean War, where he became the squadron’s first ever ejector seat bailout after his wing was sliced through by a cable devised as a booby trap. Later, Armstrong became a test pilot, which proved a good training ground for his Moon mission, especially for the hundreds of hours he spent test flying improvised Lunar Modules, from which he also ejected only seconds before one blew up.

Of course, it is not surprising that the bulk of Hansen’s book – almost three quarters - is devoted to the years leading up to Apollo 11 mission and the mission itself. At times Hansen’s knowledge of technical information is bewildering, and I found that I had to accept in a very rudimentary way what he was conveying. I felt some of the detail would be more enlightening to a more technical reader, but I never felt I didn’t understand the narrative. There is a wealth of detail about how the mission was achieved and many technical aspects and problems that needed to be solved which most people, I imagine, would never anticipate. I found the Moon mission the most gripping part of the book, and I thought it was a good idea that Hansen included some of the transcripts of conversations between the astronauts, including exchanges with Mission Control. There is so much information and so many films about this available, that I will leave it to potential readers to enjoy this aspect of the book without anything more to say here.

One aspect of the Moon landing that Hansen addresses in a few spots in the book, although only briefly – I think it would have been inappropriate to let the matter dominate the book – is the issue of conspiracy theories, the most clamorous being that the Moon landing was faked. I have never subscribed to this belief, and having read the book it is hard to understand how they persist. There is the claim that the astronauts saw a UFO near the Moon, although it was soon determined that it was one of the Lunar Module adaptor panels catching the light of the sun after it had been ejected to make ready for the landing. There was the assertion that Armstrong was an atheist (in contrast to Aldrin who conducted his own Communion on the Moon), but it was also claimed that he converted to Islam after a spiritual epiphany on the Moon. But my favourite was the mysterious words Armstrong was meant to have uttered before returning to the Lunar Module after his EVA: Good luck, Mr. Gorsky. Armstrong never commented upon the supposed remark, which was sometimes taken to be a reference to a Soviet cosmonaut (who didn’t exist), but Buddy Hacket, a 90s comedian, gave the best explanation when he suggested it was a reference to a remark Armstrong heard as a child while retrieving a ball under his neighbour’s window: Oral sex! You want oral sex?! You’ll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the Moon!

Armstrong did comment on the claims that the Moon landing was faked (see the side bar) and suggested that the only thing more difficult than getting to the Moon would be to fake it (using 1969 technology, of course). Some of the evidence raised by conspiracy theorists has concerned the lighting conditions and the lack of stars in the sky, among many other things. Modern computer simulations have shown that the sun was not the single source of light, since light bounced from the Moon surface, off the Lunar Module and off Armstrong’s suit, which was highly reflective, as Aldrin exited the ship. As for the lack of stars, there has been an expectation that there should be stars in the sky, since the Moon sky was dark, having no atmosphere. But this was also the Moon’s daylight hours when stars wouldn’t be seen. As for shots in space that show no stars, it has been explained by NASA, and I have experienced it myself, that it is very hard to photograph stars which are easy to see by the eye, and the technology used then was not really up to it. Another problem is the expectations Hollywood has created about how space should look through the eye of a camera.

Of course, the argument that the Moon landing was a political sideshow of the Cold War – America had to beat Russia to the Moon – does not really play out. Hansen narrates the Russian’s final efforts to beat the American’s in the week of Apollo 11 by sending an un-manned probe to the Moon which was meant to collect samples and return to Earth. The attempt failed after the probe crashed on the Moon a day after Apollo 11 landed. Before that, on July 3, the Soviets had also suffered the loss of their N-1 rocket in a test launch. The rocket was meant to be able to carry men to the Moon. It was the end of their space program. Yet the Soviet’s were able to track the American mission all the way to the Moon, just as nations and scientists all around the Earth did. Upon Apollo’s return Armstrong was invited to Russia where he was treated as a hero by Russian officials. Despite Russia having a good motivation to debunk the mission, they never did.

It’s not really my purpose here to defend the Moon landing, even though it is hard not to say something about this for two reasons. First, is that Hansen does address the issue in his book. Second, is that Hansen’s biography attempts not only to get us closer to the man Neil Armstrong was, but also what the technical achievement of landing on the Moon meant for humanity. The opening remarks in his preface signal this, as do the words of the goodwill messages from nations around the world and the message of the commemorative plaque attached to the ladder of the Lunar Module which was left on the Moon: Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind America was in the middle of the Vietnam War and the Cold War with Russia, but this was at least an idealistic sentiment in line with the peaceful objectives of the 1967 Space Treaty. The unique view the Lunar missions gave of the Earth, alone in space and its apparent fragility, would hopefully speak to the best in humankind, even if this was achieved in a century of some of the worst wars in history. That Hansen’s book is not just a technical account of the first Moon landing, but also tries to make sense of Armstrong and the meaning and feelings that surrounded the event, makes this an accomplished biography.

The book comes with a full bibliography and index, as well as 32 pages of black and white plates.

First Man - The Film

I saw First Man today, a day after completing my review for the book. I was aware that the movie had received some criticism because it does not depict the planting of the American flag. I remember that the flag appears in one wide shot during the movie, which includes the Lunar Module and the Moon surface, and I saw it flattened to the ground, as Buzz Aldrin described it, as the Ascent Stage blasts off from the Moon.

I would assume that some patriotic Americans might have taken offence at this, but I personally thought it was a good idea not to include the planting of the flag, since the movie was really about Neil Armstrong and his personal grief. The death of Neil and Janet’s daughter, Karen, is mainly documented in one chapter of the book, and is mentioned a few other times throughout. Damien Chazelle’s interpretation of Armstrong’s life chooses to focus upon Armstrong’s inner character and the possible effect his daughter’s death may have had upon him. In one scene Armstrong breaks down uncontrollably while alone in his study, but he remains stoic, possibly even cold in the eyes of those around him. The audience is aware, however, of the grief that he is carrying. In his interview for NASA the last question he is asked is whether he thought the death of his daughter might have an impact on him. He replies How could it not?

The question of what the significance of the Moon landing meant, beyond a technical achievement, has been discussed by many. Some have given it religious significance, others see its philosophical implications, while others talk of the new perspective it has given humans of their fragile existence in the universe. This last point is also raised by Armstrong in his NASA interview, when he talks about his experience of leaving the atmosphere in the X-15. But Chazelle’s movie intends to imbue the Moon landing with personal significance for Armstrong that transcends the historic moment. For those who have looked at the map of where the two astronauts walked during the mission, they may be aware that Armstrong unexpectedly walked across to a nearby crater before returning to the Lunar Module. This is the moment in the film that is significant for Armstrong’s inner journey, as he faces his grief one last time for his lost daughter.

I thought this was a sympathetic interpretation of Armstrong as a human being, which gets behind his icon status. James Hansen talks about the difficulty of doing this in his book, since Armstrong was so enigmatic, and it is upon this point that his factual account falls short of what he evidently wished to achieve. As a producer of the movie, which had a greater licence, Hansen, Chazelle and Josh Singer, the screenwriter, have achieved it. I think showing the planting of the flag would have detracted from that.

First Man Official Trailer
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The Apollo 11 crew from left to right, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Buzz Aldrin
The commemorative plaque attached to the ladder of the Lunar Module
Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon. Neil Armstrong can be seen reflected in the visor of his helmet

The flights are undisputed in the scientific and technical worlds. All of the reputable scientific societies affirm the flights and their results. The crews were observed to enter the spacecraft in Florida and were observed to be recovered in the Pacific Ocean. The flights were tracked by radars in a number of countries throughout their flight to the Moon and return. The crew sent television pictures of the voyage including flying over the lunar landscape and on the surface, pictures of lunar scenes previously unknown and now confirmed. The crews returned samples from the lunar surface including some minerals never found on Earth.

- Neil Armstrong