Saturday, August 14, 2021

Reading | First Man

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong | James R. Hansen 

The whole world knows and admires him as the first man to set foot on the moon, but far above and beyond that moment of accidental fame, Neil Armstrong was a nerd. 

Oh, yes, he was.

And darn proud of it too. “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer — born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow.”

This book, his official biography, was a long time coming. See, straight-laced Neil was very hesitant to put his life story into the hands of an author, even a well-known, deeply respected, highly professional author, because many of them offered to do the job. He worried, and rightly so, that his extraterrestrial walkabout on July 20, 1969, would be written to overshadow all the other accomplishments and highlights of his life, and if that was the price to be paid, he'd rather have no biography at all.

But good ol' Neil met his nerdy match in James R. Hansen. Under Hansen's careful pen, every stroke of Armstrong's long and illustrious life is captured in exacting and unemotional detail. And arranged in precise chronological order, of course. Starting with a multi-century look back on the roots of the Armstrong clan, the author meticulously details the particulars of Armstrong's life: his parents' courtship, his Boy Scout camping trips, his flights off a carrier deck during the Korean War, his contributions in developing the emerging schematics of the space vessel he would pilot to the lunar surface, and his hit-and-miss attempts to build a new post-astronaut life that would serve him well.

Though perhaps a bit of a slog for the casual reader, this book sends a diehard Apollophile such as myself, well, truly over the moon. 

* * * * *

This is a book about one nerd written by another nerd. 

And in that respect, it brings me great joy.

Neil Armstrong died in 2012, but to read this book is to feel that I'm stepping into his mind, very much alive and well, and coming to understand the man from the inside out. This is the essence of a successful biography, and author James Hansen, with his painstaking attention to the specifications of the story, achieves liftoff. 

I'll admit that at times, I find the unabridged intricacies of the story a bit tedious. Sure, tell me about Armstrong's post-Apollo work career. Elaborate on the interesting fact that he - like most of the other moonwalkers - floated from one sphere of public or corporate life to another, never quite finding a place to fit in as he once did inside a Lunar Module. But do I need a roll call of every short term corporate advisory group or board of directors on which Neil served over the years? 

Perhaps not. 

Even so, I didn't skim a single page of this book. 

The story goes that Hansen submitted every draft chapter of the book to Armstrong for his review and edits, and while Armstrong studied every single word, he suggested zero changes. While that anecdote beautifully underscores Armstrong's determination to stay out of his own hype, I find it also to be a fascinating statement about the author. Apparently, Hansen got every detail right the first time. 

And I shake my head in wonder at the magic these two men created when they made this book together. 

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