Neil Armstrong in the lunar module, 1969. Photo: Getty
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Neil Armstrong’s life: Searching for rocket man

Erica Wagner on a new biography of the space pioneer.

Neil Armstrong: a Life of Flight 
Jay Barbree
Thomas Dunne Books, 384pp, $27.99

In 1996, 30 years after Neil Armstrong first rode up into space as the command pilot of Gemini 8, he was in Houston for a reunion of the crew. When it was over, he headed for the airport and home. A young woman in her early twenties stood behind the check-in counter; she took his documents and printed out his boarding pass. “Have a nice flight, Mr Armstrong,” she said to the nondescript man with tinted glasses who carried a battered briefcase in his hand.

Brian Duffy, a Space Shuttle astronaut who was standing beside Armstrong, saw not a flicker of recognition on the young woman’s face. Armstrong thanked her politely and walked off to board his plane. “I never said anything to the agent,” Duffy recalled. “Not that I didn’t want to let her know whom she’d just met!”

This little tale, a useful insight into Armstrong’s characteristic reserve and humility, comes towards the end of Jay Barbree’s biography, subtitled A Life of Flight. After Gemini 8, of course, he went on to command Apollo 11 and became the first man to walk on the moon. His hop down off the ladder of the Lunar Module on 21 July 1969 – 45 years ago this month – on to the dusty ground of our nearest neighbour made him the most famous man on earth.

But, as Barbree’s book confirms, it was a fame he never sought. Indeed, throughout his life, he went to considerable pains to refuse it. In the Shadow of the Moon is a remarkable 2007 documentary, in which all the surviving Apollo astronauts tell their stories in their own words – all but Armstrong, who does not appear. And he is almost entirely absent from Moondust (2005), Andrew Smith’s fine collective biography of the surviving moonwalkers. But Barbree, a space correspondent for NBC News, is the only reporter to have covered all 166 American astronaut flights and moon landings. It was Barbree who broke the story of the cause of the Challenger disaster in 1986, thanks to his connections at Nasa. He knew Armstrong for five decades and called him a friend; his account ought to offer a view from the inside. Yet to be both a biographer and a man who continues to respect his late friend’s privacy is an impossible combination. This is not a critical biography: this is a work of sheer admiration.

Barbree does, however, succeed in expressing the essence of Armstrong. He was a pilot, one of the best who ever flew. He was a man who worked hard for what he believed was the greater good. It is striking that, in the remarkable broadcast interview he granted in the last year of his life to Alex Malley of Certified Practising Accountants Australia (Armstrong’s father was an auditor; that’s how Malley got the scoop), he played down the importance of his “one small step for man” statement from the lunar surface. In his mind, the words that best expressed the achievement of President Kennedy’s vision and mission were: “The Eagle has landed.”

Barbree tells the tales of Armstrong’s derring-do with rather less modesty, one imagines, than “the quiet one” – as the author calls him – would have done. His education at Purdue University in Indiana, where he was an engineering student on a navy scholarship, was interrupted by the Korean war. He flew 78 combat missions in that conflict, one of which involved an ejection from his F9F Panther jet. After the war, he worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (which later became Nasa) at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert. He made seven flights in the X-15, a rocket plane that flew to the edge of space at up to 4,000 miles an hour. He had what Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff”, though Armstrong was no fan of Wolfe’s book, dismissing it as “terrible history”. “What else could you expect written by one who never got closer to spaceflight than a Manhattan penthouse?”

Good friend that he is, Barbree doesn’t pry into Armstrong’s divorce from his first wife, Janet. And he writes gently about the couple’s daughter, Karen, who died of an inoperable brain tumour in 1962. Did Armstrong leave something of Karen’s on the surface of the moon that momentous day in 1969? Barbree hints that he might have, but the quiet one, finally, would neither confirm nor deny.

Some complex matters are avoided entirely. Wernher von Braun is a “great rocket scientist” but his past is never mentioned; Armstrong’s great hero was Charles Lindbergh although, he says to Barbree, “I was aware of the controversial position he took on certain issues.” If you want to know what those issues were, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And this isn’t a book to read for style. Barbree is fond of multiple exclamation marks (“WHAM!!!!! He exploded!!!!!” – that’s an ejection from a jet in Korea) and when Armstrong arrives at Purdue, we are informed: “There were plenty of coeds filling out tight dresses.” (But Neil meets Janet early on and behaves himself, we are assured.) Rockets are usually “mighty” and there’s a lot of bellowing primeval thunder, engines burning fiercely, spears of flame.

Yet that’s how it was. Barbree may indulge in hyperbole but sometimes, where certain stories are concerned, it’s pretty hard to avoid. The build-up to the moon landings, the race with the Soviets into space, was an extraordinary time; so extraordinary that many people still believe the whole thing was a hoax. (Armstrong’s rebuttal to that idea was always simply that it would have been impossible for the thousands of people working on the Apollo programme to keep such an amazing secret.) Read Barbree’s account of Armstrong’s skilled piloting of the Lunar Module – he put it down on the moon’s surface with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining – and feel a shiver run down your spine. See? Only hyperbole will do.

After his descent from space, Armstrong took a lesson from his hero Lindbergh and kept away from the press and the burden of fame. For a while, he worked as an administrator at Nasa; later he became a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He loved the farm he bought near Lebanon, Ohio.

His “life of flight” was the life he had dreamed of. He told Barbree he was never afraid, no matter what kind of challenging machine he flew, and not just because he was always prepared to the limits of his capability and had a healthy respect for what could go wrong. In his adolescence, he said, he’d had a recurring dream of flight, of being suspended in air. “No aircraft. No wings. Only himself floating thousands of feet – even miles above in the sky – and as long as he held his breath, relaxed and kept his wits about him, he would not fall.” 

Erica Wagner is an Eccles British Library writer in residence 2014 and a judge of this year’s Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear