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Neil Armstrong opens up for biography

‘First Man’ examines life of reticent moon-walker
/ Source: The Associated Press

Neil Armstrong was 38 when he uttered the words that have been both a blessing and a curse to him.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said as his foot touched the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.

On his return, he and Buzz Aldrin, the second moon walker on that Apollo 11 flight, went on a 45-day, around-the-world tour as NASA ambassadors. Since then, Armstrong has been largely silent, declining interviews and shunning publicity.

Historian Douglas Brinkley calls him “our nation’s most bashful Galahad.”

Author James Hansen has opened the door to Armstrong’s life a little wider with “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.” He recorded more than 50 hours of interviews with Armstrong and talked with about 125 family members, friends and associates.

Armstrong, 75, had rejected numerous requests to write his biography. The astronaut who once called himself a “nerdy engineer” finally accepted a proposal from Hansen, a history professor at Auburn University and a former NASA historian who talks his language.

Hansen said his plan for the book and his credentials helped him earn Armstrong’s trust.

“He can elaborate at length on technical issues,” Hansen said. “When it comes to issues that are more involving personalities or human relationships, that’s never been a great focus even from the time he was a boy.”

Friends were given OK to talkHansen said Armstrong quietly spread the word that it was OK for friends and associates to talk freely; that Armstrong read drafts of the book but did not demand approval rights; that he and Armstrong drew up a contract without involving lawyers; and that Armstrong will not personally benefit from the book.

Armstrong’s share of profits will go to his alma mater, Purdue University, for a space program archive.

Hansen pitched the project to Armstrong in 1999. Interviews began in 2001, and the book went on sale Oct. 18. Publisher Simon & Schuster said that more than 113,000 copies are in print.

“Readers have been eager to learn more about Neil Armstrong for years,” said associate publisher Aileen Boyle. “As soon as the manuscript was complete, we published it as soon as possible.”

Armstrong has never felt comfortable with his celebrity, generated by a moon walk seen by a worldwide television audience estimated at 1 billion.

“Friends and colleagues, all of a sudden, looked at us, treated us slightly differently than they had months or years before when we were working together,” he told “60 Minutes” in a recent interview. “I never quite understood that.”

Although CBS and Simon & Schuster, both owned by Viacom, encouraged Armstrong to do the interview, he agreed to it only as a favor to the author, Hansen said. A spokeswoman for the publisher said Armstrong is refusing all other requests.

One of the reasons may be that Armstrong, a perfectionist, doesn’t like the way he comes off in unscripted remarks. He gave his performance on “60 Minutes” a grade of C-minus, Hansen said.

In appearances just before and after the moon walk, Armstrong often seemed remote, even boring. Author Norman Mailer, who was interested in doing an Armstrong biography, wrote that Armstrong answered questions “with his characteristic mixture of modesty and technical arrogance, of apology and tightlipped superiority.”

Maybe, Hansen suggests, it was that remoteness, that ice water-in-the-veins quality, that made Armstrong the perfect choice to be the first man on the moon.

But those qualities also kept him from close family relationships. Hansen’s book offers the most candid look yet at situations Armstrong had never discussed — painful events, such as the death of his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, of brain cancer in 1962, his lack of participation while his sons were growing up and his divorce from his first wife, Janet, after 38 years.

Hansen came to know Armstrong in a way the public hasn’t seen.

“He can be very sociable, very engaging,” Hansen said. “He can almost be the life of the party. You would not suspect that.”

Armstrong doesn’t see himself as a recluse, though. He makes numerous appearances and presentations at aerospace conventions and other forums that interest him. He took questions from the audience at one such meeting in Malaysia in September, offering these thoughts on manned flight to Mars.

“It will be expensive, it will take a lot of energy and a complex spacecraft,” Armstrong said. “But I suspect that even though the various questions are difficult and many, they are not as difficult and many as those we faced when we started the Apollo (program) in 1961.”

An aging fanbase?Hansen’s book has been generally well received. At book signings in Ohio, where Armstrong grew up, there were large crowds, heavy — in a discouraging way, Hansen felt — in the demographic that saw the moon walk on television.

“It’s all from the generation that participated in it,” Hansen said. “There are very few young people coming.”

He noted that two-thirds of the world’s population was not alive in 1969.

“I wrote the book for posterity, even more so than for folks today,” Hansen said. “I wanted a complete history, a complete record to be there for future generations. Some reviewers have criticized the book for being too detailed. If that’s the biggest mistake I made, so be it.”

Publishers Weekly reveled in Hansen’s attention to detail, such as Armstrong’s heart rate during liftoff (146 beats a minute) and what a signed Armstrong letter fetched at auction ($2,500). “Rather than overwhelming, this accumulation of details gives flesh-and-blood reality to a man who is more icon than human,” PW noted.

Brinkley, writing for The New York Times, praised Hansen’s effort as “brimming with groundbreaking research, fresh anecdotes and fair-minded analysis.”

“If nothing else, Hansen should be commended for decoding the enigmatic Armstrong: a space hero short on words but sky-high on Midwestern integrity,” Brinkley wrote.