A longtime NBC News space correspondent looks back on the aviation career of the first man to set foot on the moon.
Given his starring role in one of history’s most magnificent achievements, shouldn’t Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) be a bigger deal? Following Apollo 11’s trailblazing 1969 flight, Armstrong worked a couple of years for NASA, then taught for a few more at the University of Cincinnati. Except for a brief, high-profile role investigating the causes of the Challenger disaster and an occasional speaking engagement, he assiduously avoided the spotlight, never cashing in on his fame. By the time of his death, he easily passed unrecognized in public. Barbree (“Live From Cape Canaveral”: Covering the Space Race, From Sputnik to Today, 2007, etc.), who covered every American manned space flight and became especially friendly with Armstrong, nevertheless barely pierces the habitual Armstrong reserve. Except for occasional tidbits of personal information—the astronaut’s friendship with John Glenn, the premature death of his daughter, the fire that razed his home—this account focuses primarily on Armstrong the pilot, particularly his coolness in tight spots: ejecting from a shot-up fighter plane in Korea, recovering from a “stuck thruster” in orbit aboard Gemini 8, ejecting from the lunar lander training module just before it crashed, and famously guiding the Eagle to touchdown in the Sea of Tranquility with fuel running dangerously low. These moments take up the bulk of Barbree’s amiable account. He supplies useful context by examining the origins and development of NASA’s manned flight program, including a good deal of information about astronaut training. The author insists that Armstrong never regarded himself as special and never lobbied to be first on the moon; he saw himself merely as next in line to take what turned out to be “a ‘Lindbergh’ step in flight.”
A wholly admiring assessment of Armstrong the aviator and Armstrong the man.