The Unappreciated Genius of Neil Armstrong: A Review of James Hansen’s “First Man”

Credit: NASA


First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

Before filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller called attention to it in his superlative 2019 documentary Apollo 11, few people had probably seen one of the few photos taken of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. A tuft of hair sticking out of his Snoopy cap, a beaming Armstrong looks euphoric in the photograph shot by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin just after the pair returned to the lunar module Eagle at the end of their moon walk. The almost giddy awe apparent in Armstrong’s eyes and grin stands in contrast to the reserved public persona Armstrong cultivated both before and after Apollo 11’s historic journey.

More than anything else, though that single photo captures both the enigma and the genius of Neil Armstrong – though historian James Hansen’s detailed authorized biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong certainly comes close. Brimming with prolific quotations from his own correspondence with Armstrong, his family, and his NASA colleagues, it’s as close to an autobiography of Armstrong as we’ll ever get – assuming Armstrong didn’t leave an unpublished manuscript stashed somewhere among his personal effects. Though occasionally weighed down by workmanlike prose and a dutiful obligation to transcribe the details of official reports almost verbatim, First Man makes it clear that Armstrong’s laconic professionalism made him the right choice to be the first human to set foot on the Moon.

As Hansen makes clear, Armstrong’s reticence was simply part and parcel of his personality from an early age. From siblings and high school classmates to NASA colleagues and superiors, those in Armstrong’s orbit invariably describe him as preternaturally calm and deliberate in his thinking and actions. Both his brother and a high school friend, for instance, observed that Neil only engaged in activities “on his terms.” Armstrong’s NASA colleagues would later use similar language to describe him, with Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman contending that Neil’s quiet and conscientious nature meant that “when he said something, it was worth listening to.” Likewise, Buzz Aldrin called Armstrong “certainly reserved, deep, and thoughtful. He would not utter things that would have the potential of being challenged later because of their spontaneity.” Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz was more straightforward: “He had the commander mentality.”

Critics then and now mistakenly took Armstrong’s reserve as a sort of aloof detachment at best and an engineer’s blockheaded unwillingness to contemplate the meaning of humanity’s first voyage to another world at worst. But it was that very sense of equanimity that enabled Armstrong to keep cool under pressure throughout his career as a test pilot and astronaut. It allowed him to keep Apollo 11 in perspective, seeing it mainly as a job to be done rather than dwelling on the epochal nature of the mission. From a technical perspective, these qualities made Armstrong an excellent choice to command Apollo 11. For all its literary shortcomings, Hansen’s detailed account demystifies what’s become an easily misunderstood core aspect of Armstrong’s personality.

But the real insight from Hansen’s biography rests in how Armstrong’s innate reserve made him the right man to take humanity’s first step on another world. Indeed, NASA leadership recognized that Armstrong’s “soft-spoken” character mattered more than his technical skill as a pilot when it came to making the decision of whether he or the Aldrin – who, according to flight director Chris Kraft, “desperately wanted the honor and wasn’t quiet in letting it be known” – would be the first astronaut on the lunar surface. However, even these wider considerations don’t adequately capture what made Armstrong the right person to be the first man on the Moon.

Thanks to Armstrong’s unwillingness to delve into the meaning and import of his own mission, we’ve all been able to fill in the canvas of Apollo with our own interpretations of this stupendous event. As frustrating as it’s been to journalists and writers then and since, Armstrong’s steadfast reticence has meant that discerning the meaning of Apollo became truly shared enterprise in the years and decades that followed that one small step of July 20, 1969. Those of us lucky enough to witness Apollo 11’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations on the National Mall last year can testify to the ways in which American society and humanity as a whole have collectively discussed and deliberated about the meaning and significance of our first journey beyond our home planet. 

That’s not to say that Armstrong was a cipher – far from it. As Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins recalled, Armstrong was not so much unable to reveal his innermost thoughts to others as he was generally unwilling. Armstrong’s own personal take on the meaning and import of Apollo materialized only rarely; during a pre-launch press conference, for instance, he “tentatively” (in Hansen’s words) suggested that humanity was going to the Moon “because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul. We’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.” That answer may not have satisfied the skepticism of the novelist Norman Mailer, reporting on the mission for Life magazine, but it provides an intriguing humanistic context for Armstrong’s now-immortal first words on the lunar surface: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Despite the faint intimations of humanism implied by this memorable expression – though Armstrong claims not to have given his statement much thought before setting down on the Sea of Tranquility – the first human to set foot on another celestial body refused to impose his own understanding of this epochal event on the world or the future. It was left up to us to determine the meaning of it all, with Armstrong merely providing us with the opportunity to do so. Though Hansen puts all these pieces of the puzzle on the table, he never really puts them together. He only weakly gives a sense that they constitute parts of a bigger picture, but the fact that Hansen collected them all in one place remains a significant achievement. In the end, though, it’s clear from Hansen’s account that NASA chose the right astronaut for the job.

Hansen understandably devotes nearly all of his narrative – some ninety percent – to Armstrong’s life up to his departure from the astronaut corps in the early summer of 1970. Armstrong himself briefly held a position as the NASA official in charge of advanced aeronautical research and development before leaving government altogether in 1971. He then took up a professorship at the University of Cincinnati for the rest of the 1970s before serving on government commissions (like the investigation into the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986) and corporate boards until officially retiring the early 2000s.

Reading Hansen’s brief sketch of his post-lunar life, however, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Armstrong had some difficulty adjusting to life after the Moon. After all, just what does the first man on the Moon do with the rest of his life? While Buzz Aldrin’s public struggle with alcoholism and depression began shortly after he and his two fellow astronauts exited their post-mission quarantine in Houston, Armstrong appears to have faced his own mild form of existential drift in the years and decades that followed his return to Earth. That sense of restlessness comes across in Hansen’s account of the end of his marriage to his first wife Janet in the late 1980s, when Armstrong grew indecisive about his own substantial time commitments – and failed to make enough time to sustain their own relationship.

Indeed, of the three Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins seems to have had the best post-mission experience. After briefly serving as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Collins became the first director of the National Air and Space Museum and presided over its opening in 1976. His memoir Carrying the Fire stands as perhaps the best – and certainly most literary – account of what it was like to be an astronaut during the early days of human spaceflight.

That obviously does nothing to detract from Armstrong’s storied career or his dual achievement of being the first person to set foot on the Moon and, consciously or not, allowing us to discover the meaning of that one small step for ourselves. Armstrong’s refusal to impose his own interpretation on the events of Apollo 11 then or later stands in stark contrast to the incessant demands for didactic, black-and-white interpretations that we constantly hear today. Saturated in social media, it seems as if we want to be spoon-fed superficial explanations of the happenings that swirl around us as quickly as possible. 

With his own innate quiet reserve, however, Neil Armstrong gives us a different model to follow. We’d do well to emulate his considered reticence and refuse to indulge in the sort of simplistic moralism about current affairs that marks so much of our day-to-day lives. More importantly, in so doing we’ll give ourselves the time and space needed to come to shared and individual senses of meaning about events we encounter. In the end, Armstrong’s example reminds us that calm deliberation can take us far – even all the way to the Moon.