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Book Review: First Man

First Man: Neil Armstrong

I own several astronaut biographies. Few of the astronauts chosen in the three famous early groups (the Mercury Seven selected in 1959, Next Nine in 1962 and Third Fourteen in 1963) have been able to resist the temptation to make a few bucks from their fame with a book, usually written by some ghost writer. At least those who survived; within a decade seven of the thirty were dead.

Problem is, these early astronauts were a predictable bunch. All were "pale, male and stale". Almost all were boy scouts; most were military pilots; all but one was the eldest or only son in his family (and the exception, Michael Collins had a brother who left for West Point when he was still very young.) The nature of the job of a test pilot or astronaut demands certain character traits. You must be able to follow long checklists without deviation and yet be able to make quick and calm decisions under stressful physical circumstances. Those that can't do this often die, for the job is so unforgiving of error.

Rocketman : Astronaut Pete Conrad's Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond by Howard A. Klausner

is perhaps typical of astronaut biographies. Pete Conrad, the third man on the moon, was a colourful character who, at first glance, was an unlikely astronaut who was rejeced in 1959, some say for silly practical jokes during the inhuman selection process. However, apart from meeting the profile, while he might have seemed a wild man on the ground, he was very much by the book in the cockpit. The reason, the book reveals, was his dyslexia, which forced him to concentrate, memorise and follow the procedures from an early age. Later, this technique served him well at Princeton University, in the US Navy and as an astronaut. In particular, he showed cool courage during the Skylab 2 mission, for which he won the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

There is no doubt in my mind that had Pete Conrad not become an astronaut, his qualities of courage and leadership would have certainly led to his eventual promotion to flag rank in the navy. Astronaut Alan Bean (the fourth man on the moon) fondly recalls how Conrad let him actually fly the lunar module - the incredibly gracious act of a natural-born commander.

Unfortunately, although the bits about his dyslexia and family background in the early chapters is very interesting, there is little that is new or well written in the later part of the book, which also has a most annoying framing sequencing about a non-stop flight around the world attempt dripping with purple prose that was so annoying that I started skipping it as it cropped after in alternating chapters of the book.

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Of course, Neil Armstrong is not just any astronaut. He is the astronaut, more famous than all the rest put together. Yet the man whom some consider the best pilot of all time crashed three times. Fortunately, this is not just any astronaut biography either.

First Man by James R. Hansen

Neil Armstrong commissioned an historian, to write his biography rather than a ghost writer prompted, it seems, by a home invasion by a lunatic who found evidence on the internet that the moon landings never happened. Later, Buzz dealt with thsi idiot with a haymaker.

Hansen needed his background because Neil was by far the most introverted astronaut of them all. Even with complete access to Neil, he would volunteer little information although he would respond to questions. Most of the old Neil Armstrong stories are trotted out and many - even some from his ex wife - are debunked. One that stands is Alan Bean's story of how he came in to find that Neil had been forced to eject from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). He found Neil in his office doing his paperwork.

Against all odds, this book actually manages to get into the enigma that is Armstrong. Hansen critally examines Neil's record as a pilot, a good example of how truth can burnish by revealing the man; although only historians like me will pick up that he was seeing his second wife while still married to his first - why so coy about that?

There is also the revelation of how his daughter died tragically young. Hansen notes how this affected the man who seldom showed emotion. Indeed many close friends never knew that he had ever had a daughter. Hansen recounts with great pathos an incident in which Neil saw a little girl who had come to see him being crushed by the crowd and hoisted her onto his houlder.

The book also contains painstaking examination of how it was that Armstrong became the First Man. In particular, Alan Bean provides details about how it could have been organised so that Buzz was the First Man. The two, of course, arrived on the moon together. That Neil was best-qualified of all the astronauts to deal with his fame is demonstrated.

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Homeward Bound by Alan Bean

Apollo : An Eyewitness Account By Astronaut/Explorer Artist/Moonwalker Alan Bean with Andrew Chalkin

Yet the most unusual and beautiful astronaut biography of them all is this one. Yes, it's written by a ghost and tells you little that I could not write down here and now. He fails to mine his astronaut for real information, mainly because he doesn't know what to ask. What anecdotes Bean tells, especially about his late commander Pete, are interesting but Hansen actually got more information out of the same man.

But you don't buy this book for the articles. This is a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated in full colour by Alan Bean with the most breathtaking paintings of moonscapes you will ever see. As a moonwalker, Bean knows whereof he paints. He knows, for example, what an explosion looks like in space. (It doesn't have the characteristic fireball or mushroom shapes of those on Earth).

My mother, a fine artist by training, noted how the paintings use of colour also showed Alan Bean's deteriorating eyesight. Ironically, as he improved as an artist, his advancing age made his task ever more difficult.

If you want to know what it was like to be an astronaut, buy First Man. If you want to know what it was like to go to the moon, buy this book.

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Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
kerravonsen
21st May, 2006 12:59 (UTC)
Oooh, the last one intrigues me.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )