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Apollo's rationalist

First Man The Life of Neil A. Armstrong James R. Hansen Simon & Schuster: 770 pp., $30

November 27, 2005|M.G. Lord | M.G. Lord's latest book is "Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science."

AT the beginning of "Magnificent Desolation," Tom Hanks' recent IMAX movie about the Apollo moon landings, a group of schoolchildren tell what they know about lunar travel, which isn't much. When asked about the order in which U.S. astronauts arrived on the moon, for instance, one little girl insists that Lance Armstrong came first.

Clearly, what the world needs is a good biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong, who, on July 20, 1969, planted the first human foot -- or rather, pressurized boot -- on lunar soil. And at nearly 800 pages, James R. Hansen's "First Man" seemed likely to fill that need. Hansen, a professor at Auburn University and a former historian for NASA, interviewed more than 125 people for the book and logged more than 50 hours with the famously laconic Armstrong. His exhaustive research, however, may have been his undoing. Hansen has presented what he knows with little apparent sifting, shaping or pruning. "First Man" is not so much reported and written as vacuumed up and dumped out.

Still, many gems twinkle amid the irrelevancies and rambling quotations. And if readers can weather the turgid opening chapters, including a lengthy digression on a 17th century Irishman to whom Armstrong's mother falsely thought him related, they may enjoy the sections taking place in space. Hansen's hyper-detailed style -- featuring long transcripts of in-flight conversations and such near-trivia as Armstrong's heart rate under stress -- works when applied to events on the moon, where what happens from second to second has some import.

Armstrong was born in 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, an archetypal small town with archetypal small-town values. From a young age, his scientific rationalism set him apart. His mother, Viola, was an ardent Christian, but he rejected her orthodoxy and by high school was calling himself a "Deist." His interest in aviation also emerged early. He earned his pilot's license well before his driver's license and at age 16 flew himself to West Lafayette, Ind., to preregister for classes at Purdue. In 1955, after interrupting his studies with a stint as a naval aviator, he earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering.

As Hansen tells it, the college-educated pilots of the Apollo program were far from "Spam in a can" -- mere passengers with little control over their spacecraft; their engineering knowledge was vital to their work. This puts him at odds with Tom Wolfe, whose "The Right Stuff" romanticizes such seat-of-the-pants Air Force pilots as Chuck Yeager, who scorned Project Mercury's wingless capsules and was barred from the astronaut program because he lacked a college degree. Hansen refutes Wolfe's portrayal of Yeager as the first to fly an airplane into the high stratosphere and discredits Yeager's account, in his autobiography, of a 1962 flight with Armstrong in a two-seat training plane. Yeager questions the future astronaut's flying skills, and Hansen wildly overreacts to this criticism, devoting pages to its rebuttal. He also makes much of Armstrong's war record. While serving in combat in Korea, the young flier did indeed keep his cool through multiple brushes with death. Yet Hansen's plodding narration strips the drama from these incidents. One wishes his admirable concern with accuracy were paired with Wolfe's irresistible storytelling.

Armstrong's robotic stoicism, which served him well in combat, had a different effect at home. In 1956, he married Janet Shearon, a physician's daughter from Wilmette, Ill., whom he had met at Purdue. He was attracted by "her smarts, her good looks, and her lively personality," all of which he managed, through neglect, to diminish. The smarts suffered first. After exchanging vows, the couple moved to California, where Armstrong had a job as a test pilot at the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) High-Speed Flight Station in the desert near Edwards Air Force Base. The couple rented a place in Westwood, close to UCLA, so Janet could complete her undergraduate degree. But tired of commuting, Armstrong soon moved her closer to his work, ending her education. Later, when their 2-year-old daughter died from an inoperable brain tumor, Janet "desperately needed her husband to help her," commented the wife of another test pilot, but Armstrong, using "work as an excuse ... got as far away from the emotional thing as he could." For more than three decades, Janet ignored his inattention. In November 1987, however, she could deny it no more: "I asked him to go skiing, but he couldn't work it into his schedule for another year." In 1990, she initiated a divorce. Armstrong, only briefly fazed, swiftly remarried.

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