Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Books

Review: Bio of astronaut Neil Armstrong portrays a modest hero

Displaying the tone of his spirited, often humorous biography, Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight, Jay Barbree paints a scene that took place on July 16, 1969. As the moon-destined astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin, along with NASA director Deke Slayton, were being driven by van to the launch pad, Armstrong, Barbree writes, pondered that "going to the moon wasn't about the crew. … It was about … humans leaving their planet … following their destiny … advancing knowledge."

As they departed the van for the rocket, Slayton, the astronauts' boss, unceremoniously turned to them and said, "Watch your a---- and have a good trip."

For 55 years, Barbree, an Emmy-winning space correspondent with NBC News, covered all 166 American astronaut flights and moon explorations. He is also the author of eight books, mostly about flight, including (as lead writer) Moon Shot (2011) and Live From Cape Canaveral (2008).

Virtually embedded in the space program, he came to know many of the astronauts and claimed Armstrong an intimate friend until Armstrong's death on Aug. 25, 2012. Drawing upon five decades of conversations, transcripts, notes, interviews and memories, Barbree comes as close as any author could to painting an accurate portrait of the thoughtful, reticent Apollo 11 astronaut who was the first man to walk on the moon, 45 years ago on July 20, 1969.

Barbree goes all the way back to Armstrong's early years in the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, where he was born on Aug. 5, 1930. When he was 10 or so, he observed a gleaming new silver Luscombe airplane land outside his town. The pilot invited him for a spin and, thus, young Neil forever fell in love with flying.

In the late 1940s, Armstrong qualified for a seven-year Navy Reserve Officer Training Course at Purdue University, studying aeronautical engineering. But before completing his degree he was called into service as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. In 1951, flying an F9F Panther jet, Armstrong attacked a North Korean bridge. But, coming out of his dive, he flew into an antiaircraft cable, cutting 6 to 8 feet off his right wing. He related to Barbree how he ejected from his jet — "a violent crack of thunder" at 22 G's — as he tried to cover his face and eyes, spinning wildly backward.

Armstrong survived the Korean War to complete his aeronautical degree at Purdue and become a test pilot at the Lewis Laboratory in Cleveland and then at Edwards High Speed Flight Station in California. There he flew the dangerous, evil-looking rocket plane, the X-15.

In 1956 he married Janet Shearon; they had a son, Eric Alan, and a daughter, Karen Anne. He joined NASA as a Gemini astronaut in 1962.

Armstrong's career was triumphal, but in 1962 he suffered a profound domestic tragedy: His daughter died at age 2 of an inoperable brain tumor. The author relates how Armstrong's blaming "his inability to find the science" to save her "came close to wrecking the man."

When the time came in 1969 to choose the three astronauts to fly to the moon, Slayton picked Armstrong as commander of Apollo 11, Collins as command module pilot and Aldrin as lunar module pilot and chief science experimenter. According to Barbree, Armstrong did no lobbying for his choice position. And NASA brass "were sure that if Neil were the first on the moon he would not cheapen that honor by enriching himself" — no "Armstrong's Moon Burgers." And, humility aside, Armstrong was simply the best pilot in the astronaut corps.

On July 16, 1969, 350,000 vehicles parked on Cape Canaveral's beaches, filled with witnesses for the moon shot. Visiting dignitaries included Vice President Spiro Agnew; one-half of the U.S. Congress; Charles Lindbergh; Chuck Yeager, first to break the sound barrier; actors Jimmy Stewart and Robert Redford; and scores of other celebrities.

The explosive liftoff was soul-shattering, the escape velocity 24,500 mph. Armstrong's piloting skills and his moon landing were flawless. Relating Armstrong's feelings as the usually unemotional astronaut walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, the author writes, "He was overwhelmed; his senses and his thoughts set afire with the miracle of being on the lunar surface."

Jay Barbree's Neil Armstrong is an exciting, sometimes poignant saga of NASA's early exploits and of its modest, intrepid explorer.

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