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Neil Armstrong’s life: Searching for rocket man

Erica Wagner on a new biography of the space pioneer.

Neil Armstrong in the lunar module, 1969. Photo: Getty
Neil Armstrong in the lunar module, 1969. Photo: Getty

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

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