First Man: The Biography of Neil Armstrong

I picked this up the other day and have been reading it somewhat haphazardly. It’s well done, but I’m a bit puzzled by somethings in the book. Mind you, I’m not very far into it (Armstrong’s still a test pilot at Edward’s in the 50s), so it’s possible that it could change later on.

The author quotes Armstrong as saying that he’d done a number of things in his life (Korean War pilot, engineer, college professor, etc.), but all he was known for was being the first man to walk on the Moon and this bothered him. The book, however, does not really go into great detail about some pretty remarkable moments in Neil’s life.

For example, Neil’s flying a B-29, they’re getting ready to drop an experimental plane from belly of the B-29 when one of the engine’s conks out. Neil and the copilot (who’s in charge of dropping the experimental aircraft) are discussing what to do, when the pilot of the experimental plane tells them that he’s got a problem, and that they shouldn’t drop him. Neil and his copilot quickly realize that their engine problem is so serious that they have to drop the experimental plane if any of them want to have a hope of survival. Everything’s going wrong at this point: With the engine out, they’re going to have trouble attaining the correct speed to drop the aircraft, but if they reach that speed, there’s a good chance that the engine that’s bad will lose it’s prop, thus becoming a giant ninja throwing star and shred the plane. Even worse, when they do get the B-29 up to speed, the primary release switches don’t work. The co-pilot is able to drop the aircraft by throwing the secondary release switches and as soon as he does, the prop disintergrates, sending shrapnel everywhere.

They not only lose another engine because of this, but most of the controls are shot as well. Between them, Neil and the co-pilot have to coordinate their actions in order to get the plane down. It should be a tense and nailbiting time. Yes, of course, we know Neil’s going to make it through okay, but so did the crew of Apollo 13 and yet that movie had plenty of tense moments in it.

That’s not the way it reads, however. Everything is calm, matter-of-fact, and somewhat understated. Now, it’s possible that the author wrote it that way, because that’s how Neil wanted it. Neil is a very quiet person, and the description of his that the author quotes is, “It was a pretty rough time.” Still, I’d think that the author would have “punched” things up a bit, while still remaining accurate to give you a better sense of just how good Neil was as a pilot.

Mind you, I know how good Neil was as a pilot from reading other books about pilots and the space program. Someone, however, who wasn’t the space geek that I am, wouldn’t necessarily be able to realize that, even though the author quotes some of Neil’s fellow pilots praise for Neil.

Additionally, Neil’s apparently, one hell of a good engineer, yet the true impact of that isn’t coming through. Again, because I know about some of the people who were in awe of Neil’s talents and because I understand the kind of brainpower it takes to be an engineer, I grasp the concept. Yet, I don’t get a feel for him. He’s said to have a great sense of humor and musical talent, none of that, however, really comes through. (And yes, I understand music well. I played trombone in high school. Come to think of it, I don’t think the author ever mentions what instruments Neil plays. :confused: )

Still, it’s an interesting read, and it cuts through some of the Hollywood imagery of what went on to give you a grittier view of things. For example, Yeager’s flight where he’s forced to bail out of the NF-109 and at the end of The Right Stuff, he’s seen walking calmly away from the crash is not what happened. (BTW, it seems that he screwed the pooch on that one.) A passing motorist stopped and raced over to help Yeager, only to start puking when he saw Yeager cutting burned hunks of flesh off his hands. (And I have to wonder why that didn’t end up in the film. That’s certainly more macho than Sam Shepard walking away from the wreck with his helmet under his arm.)

I thought we might have a series of threads on space film. You want to start one for The Right Stuff? :wink:

I read Yeager years ago. I’ll have to read it again soon. (Right now I’m reading Failure Is Not An Option by Gene Kranz.) Incidentally, there’s an NF-104 on a pedestal outside of the Test Pilot School at Edwards. They took it down for maintenance, and someone put a sign in front of the empty pedestal that said STEALTH. (This was when it was still Top Secret.)

I haven’t read Armstrong’s book, but from what I know about test pilots it doesn’t seem strange that they were ‘calm’ during the B-29 incident. An emergency is no time to panic, and being engineers they attempt to solve the problem. And being test pilots, they know they’re the only persons alive who have the skill to pull off the amazing escape. :wink: I was reading a few weeks ago about the crash of Flight 232 in Souix City. The pilot not only kept calm, but he also kept his sense of humour:

Actually, I was thinking about doing one for For All Mankind.

I’m not surprised that Armstrong kept his calm at all, I’m just surprised that the author isn’t building the tension in the book. Armstrong had a rep for being calm and cool even among test pilots. He also, apparently, wasn’t that good behind the wheel of a car (not enough going on to maintain his attention, it seems).

BTW, in the 1950s one of Neil’s cars was a Hillman convertable.

I finished it, finally, and I’m glad that I bought the book at a discount (I got the hardcover for $6). It’s not horrible, but it leaves a helluvalot out about Neil’s life. For example, Neil stayed at NASA until 1972 and then left. Why? I don’t know, the book doesn’t say. Neil was a college professor at the University of Cincinnati for a number of years, but do we have an idea of what all he did while there? Not really. Do we know if any of his students went on to “big things”? Nope. Neil’s given some 3000+ speeches in the years since he walked on the Moon, does the book tell us where/when/and for whom? Not really.

The book takes a long time to get to the Moon landing, then covers everything after the landing in one short, rush. You do get some information on the Apollo 11 mission that I’ve not seen anywhere else. (There was a bit of friction between him and Buzz over Neil’s performance in one of the sims. Neil also suggested a manual system for parts of the LM, but it was rejected for not meeting the kind of “image” NASA wanted to project.) Neil, it turns out, was one of the engineers who worked on designing the first digital fly-by-wire systems.

One of the ironies of history that the book points out is that when the Armstrong’s house caught fire in the 1960s, the first person to show up to help was their neighbor Ed White, who a short time later would die in the Apollo 1 fire.

Also surprising is that the brass at NASA was terrified that Neil would put the LM down no matter what. They kept saying over and over again, “If something goes wrong, Neil, don’t worry, we’ll put you guys on the next flight so you can try it again.” That’s not what I would have expected of Neil from his public image, everybody connected with the program, however, says that they had no idea of what Neil was thinking and expected him to try to put the LM down if he thought there was even the slightest chance of being able to do it.

And while it doesn’t truly explain why Neil agreed to allow the book to be written (He just says, “It was time.”), it does give what I think is the most likely reason: He’s being shown around a friend’s house by their six year old daughter in 2003 (or so) when she show’s him her favorite book, which was “about Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon. You have the same name as him.” I think the fact that she didn’t realize that her hero and the family friend she adored were one in the same bothered him. Not in the sense that his fame was fading, but that his public and private persona were so far apart from one another that people wouldn’t be able to put the two together.

Armstrong was just plain good at keeping cool in emergency situations. There was the B-29. He ejected from a jet over water in Korea. Then an emergency on his Gemini flight, the ejection from the lunar training vehicle, and then the little matter of landing a LM for the first time while listening to computer program alarms blare in the background.

I recall reading that during the Gemini emergency he had about a dozen options open to him. He chose the ONE that would not result in their death and destruction. And remember, they were not in contact with the ground at that time. That was all Armstrong, according to co-pilot Dave Scott.

Sure, there were some loose ends in the book, but I think it was good overall. I’m surprised it revealed as much as it did given Armstrong’s desire to keep biographers at arm’s length for so long.

I thought From the Earth to the Moon covered the friction between Aldrin and Armstrong pretty well. They also show Armstrong purposefully “crashing” the LM during a sim to test how mission control would react and how Aldrin thought such acts reflected poorly on both of them.

The Armstrong Air and Space Museum in his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio is a little light on Apollo 11 artifacts as you might imagine, but they do have the Gemini VIII capsule he flew in on display, which is a great thrill for any true space geek.

I saw last week In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary on the Apollo project. If you click on the link you’ll notice a long list of astronauts being listed, but no Armstrong (except archival footage). He’s still reclusive.

I don’t remember that part from FtEttM.

Armstrong hates that place, BTW. It was all Nixon’s baby, Neil had nothing to do with it and wishes people knew that.

I wasn’t a big fan of that, either.

Not really, he’s selective about where he goes and what he does. Upon getting back from the Moon he asked Lindbergh for advice on how he should live his life. The man’s done a lot since he got back from the Moon, apparently, but he chooses not to make a big deal out of it.

I wonder if NASA specifically chose Armstrong because his personality would let him deal with the celebrity of being the first man on the moon. Some other people might turn into publicity hounds or perhaps turn to drink.

Yes they did. Indeed there was a strong argument for Buzz to be the first one out the hatch and on to the Moon, but NASA insisted that it be Neil (this is discussed at length in the book).

When I worked in the first time in the DC metro area, we did a lot of work for the US Navy (re: NATO) up on the Arctic ice pack at various places (off the coast of Greenland, near the North Pole, etc.). One person told me that a “celebrity” group had flown to the North Pole and coincidentally saw one of our ice camp not too far from the Pole and decided to stop by (I was wasn’t there, tragically enough :frowning: ). The group included Neil Armstrong and Sir Edmund Hillary. I asked what their impressions of the two were. Sir Edmund Hillary was fun, full of stories, and witty, whereas, Neil was… um… just … dull. He didn’t say much, he was rather monotone when he spoke, and really not very inspiring.

I was disappointed to hear his less than “stellar” performance amongst my peers, thinking, “Dude, you walked on the moon!”

A few years, later I watched him on some moon landing anniversary on the NASA channel (or maybe C-SPAN), I realized I made the wrong judgment: that the guy is an really an engineer at heart. Sure, he does the talk rounds, the money is nice, but why else would he stay in Ohio and teach engineering, if he didn’t love it? He could have made a lot more money exploiting his accomplishments with an airline, calculator, or whiskey ad campaigns(“Laddie, let a 'ew “shots” of Glenfiddich take 'ew to the moon!” [Drink responsibly]). I only know of one case where he cashed in on his fame and that involved an endorsement of Chrysler when Iacocca was trying to rebuild the brand name. And he was pushing, if you will, the great “engineering” that was being used for the new Chrysler models. I think he was motivated to help the organization pull out (of course the money helped), but if you remember the commercial it wasn’t all that glitzy, and I’m betting he wanted that way.

So I understand why he’s pretty taciturn about his accomplishments. That’s just the way he is.

He’s right but at the same time, you have to respond “well duh”. Being a combat pilot or an engineer or a professor are all impressive achievements - but they’ve all been done by tens of thousands of people. Only one person has ever or will ever be the first person to walk on the moon and that really is going to overshadow all of that person’s other accomplishments.

I was going to pick this nit in the OP, but you beat me to it.

More specifically, Armstrong didn’t purposely crash. On one of the hundreds of sims they ran he simply waited to see if Mission Control would tell them to abort in time, and they didn’t. Sort of his way of testing them like they were being tested.

This book is on my “to read” list, but I did hear of differing accounts to an incident with Yeager. Chuck claims in his book he was flying with Neil checking to see if the lake bed was dry enough for landings. Neil wanted to do a touch and go to test the surface and Yeager told him it was too wet to try. Neil does attempt it and they promptly get stuck in the mud, stranded on the lake bed. Yeager sarcastically asks
Armstrong if he has any more ideas and Neil shakes his head no.

I undersatnd Armstrong has a completly different account of this story in the book, is this true?

If you’re seeking glitz and glamour, then don’t read books. You might learn the facts. I think today’s media has made you thirsty for the hype that’s been force-fed down our throats. I guess you never saw a Walter Kronkite news report, huh?

…Even w/o hype, the book kept you reading for more, didn’t it? :dubious:

It’s in there, and the author makes a strong case for Armstrong’s account of the events. Having taken a stab at reading Yeager’s autobiography back in high school, and finding it a wee bit too improbable to finish, I think that Armstrong’s version is the correct one.

Jinx, I’m 38 years old, I grew up watching “Uncle Walter” on TV. You’ll note I didn’t complain that the book wasn’t “jazzy,” I complained about the lack of detail on aspects of Neil’s life. I finished the book because Armstrong’s a hero of mine and I’m a hard-core space geek (as I pointed out in this thread, I like looking at the blue prints for the freakin’ launch tower), not because it was an engaging read (unlike, say A Man on the Moon or Moon Shot). Armstrong was the first human to ever set foot on another celestial body, even the first person to set foot on Mars will be forever playing “second fiddle” to Armstrong. Given his historical importance, he deserves to have a first class biography. This, sadly, wasn’t it.

I can recollect two times when I heard someone make comments that would lead me to believe that, given a choice of an account from Yeager and an account from Armstrong, you might want to pick Armstrong if accuracy is a concern.