The first human on the moon is a nice guy, writes admiring biographer Hansen (History/Auburn Univ.), but one not afraid of fighting and politicking to be the first.
When, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface from Apollo 11, the spacecraft he commanded, the world united for a minute. Russian communist newspaper Pravda called the crew “three courageous men,” while a Czech commentator said, “This is the America we love, one so totally different from the America that fights in Vietnam.” Even the French joined in, with France-Soir calling the landing “the greatest adventure in the history of humanity.” By Hansen’s account, Armstrong had a certain affect on people; though he was customarily the youngest (and smallest) of his military cohort, he had all the grit, diplomatic skill and tenacity necessary to get things done. He also had a talent for walking away from near-misses with death, both as a carrier-based Navy pilot during the Korean War and as a NASA test pilot in the California desert. Though Hansen can be portentous (noting, for instance, that the etymology of “Neil” is either “cloud” or “champion”), he is not inclined to reflexive hero worship. The Armstrong he presents is capable of scrapping bitterly with hero and fellow test pilot Chuck Yeager (who, Armstrong said, was a good flyer but “seemed to have less interest in precision and getting information and drawing conclusions,” as a test pilot was supposed to), and equally capable of pulling rank (he beat out Buzz Aldrin to be first out Apollo’s door). To his credit, too, Hansen enjoys demolishing myths, showing that the small-town stargazer who supposedly gave Armstrong his start was merely a good self-promoter and that Yeager had nothing on Armstrong in the cool department.
Though without the exuberance of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Hansen’s big biography does a good job of showing how and why Armstrong has entered the history books.