A quote from Joseph Campbell's Reflections On the Art of Living captures the essence of the life of Neil Armstrong in this stunning biography: "The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." James Hansen makes it clear that throughout his life, Armstrong has been his own man, consistent, focused, quiet, private.
There are two primary strengths in this comprehensive and carefully researched biography. The first is the torrent of information detailing Armstrong's life experiences which prepared him for the launch of Apollo 11. We learn that he was born at 12:31:30 a.m., not just 12:31 on August 5, 1930. Neil is the Scottish form of the Gaelic for "cloud" or, in modern terms, "champion." At age 3 he got his first model airplane. His mother agonized whether to get the 10- or 20-cent plane; she got the latter. In 1947 he stood 5'9.5", weighed 144 pounds, had a chest of 33", a waist of 29", and a blood pressure of 118 over 84. This is a catalogue of a life, a CPA's often dry ledger sheet. Yet, this information builds a solid foundation on which to examine and understand the Neil Armstrong who walked on the moon and the consequences to his life thereafter.
The second strength is the series of chapters on the flight of Apollo 11, 158 pages. This section is equally, maybe more detailed, but it is so much more focused. Details here never seem to be superfluous; they support and reinforce the enormous difficulty of the flight, the landing, and the return to earth. The prose sparkles here, and the most mundane communications between the astronauts and Houston, in their understated manner and tone, institute more life to the text than in the 400 pages which preceded. His mother Viola, a deeply religious woman, said, "It seemed as if from the very moment he was born - further back still, from the time my husband's family and my own ancestry originated back in Europe long centuries ago - that our son was destined for this mission." There is an extensive and very well-reasoned discussion of what Armstrong actually said ("That's one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.") when he set foot on the moon and how that particular statement came about. Armstrong feels that the notorious missing "a" was simply the result of his typically soft speech and tendency to drop syllables.
Hansen ends the chapters on Apollo 11 with the statement that when the flight was over and Armstrong returned home, his "life on the dark side of the Moon had begun." His life as a private person was compromised. Hansen makes it understandable why Armstrong had to become a "recluse" as one writer called him. It is this final section, however, where the biography's weakness appears. The information in this brief section of 67 pages covers the last 35 years in a less than detailed manner, especially when compared with the massive documentation of Armstrong's early life and the Apollo 11 period.
Given the length of this biography, I began scanning early on, but I quickly changed that plan because I became engrossed in the story of Armstrong's life and the times which shaped him. All came from small towns, nearly all were Boy Scouts, all were among the few of their generation to attend college. It was a story I experienced - and watched on a small black and white Zenith television which received only 3 channels. On July 20, 1969 a college housemate and I sat in rapt attention on the floor in the dark at the foot of our landlady's bed and watched as Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon at 10:56:15 p.m. EDT.
Armstrong is presented with warts and human foibles, often failing to show human sensitivity to those around him. After the death of his two-year old daughter Karen, he returned to work almost immediately. He took only one souvenir to the moon for his wife and none for his two sons. His commitment to his career created a huge personal toll on his first wife and children; he and Janet divorced after 38 years. Although NASA nominated Hansen for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, this is not a hagiography. First Man is, as Hansen himself notes, "an authorized biography more candid, honest, and unvarnished than most unauthorized biographies."