Discovering the Man Behind 'First Man'
For much of the world, the flight of Apollo 11 has been a distant memory - an adventure consigned to pages of history - for 35 years. Yet even with manned spaceflight confined to earth orbit since the 1980s, the romance of the Apollo missions has never died.
A new generation of space buffs has been drawn to the lunar landing saga by movies and books written by and about the astronauts, most now in their 70s, who walked on the Moon. But until now, one important piece of the historical puzzle, the life story of the first man to walk there, has been conspicuously missing.
In the generation that has passed since his "giant leap" into immortality, Neil Armstrong has been the living example of a paradox. The man whose first footsteps on another world were a seminal event in human history has kept largely to himself in the years since Apollo 11 made him a household name, perhaps the most famous name in modern history.
That is all about to change, thanks to James Hansen, an Auburn University history professor who grew up in Indiana never knowing how far his love for golf and passion for the past would take him. In 2002, Armstrong signed off on a project he had never agreed to before - a definitive telling of his life story that Hansen would write, and in which Armstrong, his family and many of the great names in air and space exploration would participate.
The resulting book, "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong," arrives on store shelves Oct. 18. Published by Simon & Schuster, the movie rights to "First Man" have already been sold to Warner Brothers and Oscar-winning actor/director Clint Eastwood.
For Hansen, 53, "First Man" is the undisputed highlight of a nearly 25-year career chronicling the history of aerospace and spaceflight. He wonders where his career might go next, but for the time being is focused on a nationwide, 10-city book tour and a nationwide PR extravaganza that will see his book spotlighted across the media landscape.
The zenith of the media blitz will be a Nov. 7 feature by Ed Bradley on CBS' "60 Minutes". Preliminary plans call for interviews with Armstrong to be shot in "more than one historic venue," Hansen said. It is not yet known whether Hansen himself will be part of the "60 Minutes" piece.
"In a way it's kind of my own moon landing," Hansen said during an interview in June at his home near the Auburn campus, in east-central Alabama. "It's hard to top this. I don't think I can top it."
That someone has written a book about Armstrong's life is not surprising. His name is often mentioned in the same breath as those of Charles Lindbergh and Christopher Columbus. That Armstrong helped with the book, giving Hansen more than 50 hours of in-depth interviews, is the true triumph in what Hansen's book has accomplished.
While those who know him personally hate the term, Armstrong, 75, has been described as something of a recluse since Apollo 11 returned to Earth. He resigned from NASA just two years later to teach aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. But the crush of acclaim that followed him home from the Moon never faded away.
Armstrong's career as an astronaut and his travails as an icon are well documented, but his life's story is exactly the opposite. In the years after he walked on the Moon, some of literature's biggest names - Stephen Ambrose and James Michener among them - pursued Armstrong's biography with no success.
So how is it that a history professor who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, well known in scholarly circles but virtually unknown in popular publishing, landed the story of one of the world's most famous explorers? He credits persistence, a unique point of view and a little prodding from his students.
Hansen earned a Master's degree and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. While still an undergraduate back in Indiana, he considered law school. But two of his history professors, Gary Blumenshine and Ralph Violette, convinced Hansen to keep pursuing a lifelong love of history. The professors took a special interest in him and convinced him to pursue graduate school, even though jobs in teaching and scholarly research were scarce at the time.
"He was the best student we've ever had," Blumenshine said. "We encouraged Jim not to be discouraged about the possibility of a career in academics, and that he had a real chance of success."
Life-long Love Found on Golf Course
Hansen's lifelong love of the past began not in the classroom, but on a golf course in his hometown. In 1961, when Hansen was nine years old, his father, Irwin, died, and his mother, Grace had to take a job. Young Jim began spending summers at Fairview Golf Course, where he spent hours golfing with and talking to many veterans of World War II. His father served in the Army Signal Corps during the war, so he absorbed the stories of his golfing companions with eager fascination. As they walked from one hole to the next, he "interviewed" these men about the war, about their lives and about the Great Depression.
"I think I was just trying to find my father," Hansen said. "I hadn't been able to ask him these questions."
After Hansen began a four-year fellowship at Ohio State, he met yet another professor, June Fullmer, whose influence gave his career its most important nudge. Hansen took Fullmer's course in the history of the scientific revolution and from there, his interests turned more and more toward science history.
In 1981, while still at Ohio State working on his doctorate, Hansen got the call that would change his life. Duke University Professor Alex Roland, at the time a historian with NASA's History Office called to offer him a job writing about the early work in aeronautics done at the agency's Langley Research Center. The resulting book, "Engineer In Charge, A History of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory," was published in 1987.
Roland had gotten Hansen's name through a colleague of Fullmer's, Merritt Roe Smith, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I like to tell people that I discovered (Hansen)," Roland said. "Alas, he was already discovered when I first met him. He is an excellent historian who has made an enviable reputation for himself."
To call Hansen "accomplished" in his field is an understatement. His resume stretches for 18 pages, including dozens of books, articles, professional honors and awards. Including "First Man," Hansen has authored or co-written nine books, one of which, entitled "Spaceflight Revolution," was nominated by NASA for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.
"First Man" may not be far behind for a similar honor. Simon & Schuster freely compares the impact of "First Man" with that of 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner "Lindbergh," which traced the life of Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic.
"Hansen's unprecedented access to private documents, interviews with more than 125 subjects... and unpublished sources yield the first in- depth analysis of this elusive American celebrity still renowned the world over," the publisher said in its fall 2005 catalog.
According to MIT's Smith, Hansen has a rare combination of skills that make a project like "First Man" possible. He is both a deep researcher and a perceptive writer, Smith said, making it possible for him to sift out relevant material from mountains of raw facts.
"Some people can do that relatively easily and others cannot," Smith said. "You get overwhelmed with the amount of material and you can't put pen to paper."
Credibility Not Credentials
After 20 years of writing about the history of spaceflight and aerospace technology, Hansen wanted to write a biography of someone who had been an engineer or a pilot and who had crossed over between engineering and science. About a year before he first contacted Armstrong, he mentioned the idea of writing the moonwalker's life story to a group of his graduate students who began encouraging him to pursue the idea.
"I was ready to do a biography," Hansen said. "But obviously, I was challenged by the daunting prospect of getting him to do it. I had no real confidence. There was nothing about my approach that I thought would convince him."
But there was something unique about Hansen's credentials, if not his approach. Over his career, Hansen had written more about the technology and science advances brought about by air and space exploration, and not so much about the romance and lore.
He first wrote to Armstrong (after getting his address from a historian colleague that Hansen calls "kind of my Deep Throat") in 2000 and got a generic response back from Armstrong saying that he was too busy to participate. A few months later, Hansen wrote again, sending a packet of his books and articles.
One of the books caught Armstrong's eye. The book, "From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer," was about an aircraft designer, Fred Weick, with whom the ex-astronaut was familiar. Armstrong liked the content and tone of the book and agreed to sit down with Hansen to talk about writing his own biography.
"He wanted it to be a scholarly book," Hansen said. "I think if I had been a commercial writer, he would not have paid much attention. He's not interested in feature stories about him."
Armstrong, Hansen and Armstrong's wife Carol first met in the early fall of 2001, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and talked all afternoon about the direction the project might take. Hansen's credentials were not the only thing that left Armstrong feeling good. They even talked about their shared Midwestern roots. Armstrong was an Ohioan who went to college in Indiana; Hansen was a Hoosier who went to college in Ohio.
Over the next few months, without any lawyers involved, Armstrong and Hansen worked out a contract that both signed in June 2002. Armstrong is personally receiving no money from the project, Hansen said. Armstrong's share of book royalties will go toward the construction of a new engineering building at his alma mater, Purdue University.
In August 2002, Armstrong put his rare signature on Hansen's golden ticket into the world of space history. It was a letter blessing Hansen's research and encouraging others to help him wherever possible. "[Hansen] has a deep and abiding interest in the history of flight," Armstrong wrote. "He has known many of the great creative individuals who made their mark in the aviation and space progress of the 20th century."
Hansen met even more of those great individuals during his research for "First Man," amassing a staggering archive of 125 interviews, including conversations with Armstrong's Apollo crewmates and many other astronauts, men he flew with in the Korean War, his first wife, his prom date and even the man who taught Armstrong to fly as a teenager. But the information flow was not always one way.
In 1962, Armstrong's parents appeared on the program "I've Got A Secret" on the day their son was chosen to be an astronaut. Armstrong had been unable to catch the live broadcast, and never saw the program until Hansen showed it to him after getting a copy sent to him unexpectedly by a collector of television programs. In the master bedroom of Armstrong's Ohio home, 40 years after it aired, Hansen showed him the tape. The reserved Armstrong, sitting at the foot of the bed, said little, but a great warm smile spread across his face.
Hansen and his wife, Peggy, have developed a close relationship with Armstrong and his second wife, Carol, during the writing of the book. They have spent enough time together that Hansen knows the moonwalker's favorite flavor of ice cream (raspberry chocolate chip). Peggy Hansen and Carol Armstrong take walks and go to movies together during the Hansens' trips to Ohio to work on the book. The couples traveled to California for a stay at Clint Eastwood's golf resort, Tehama, where they discussed Eastwood's plans for making a movie out of the book.
"To be playing in a threesome with Neil Armstrong and Clint Eastwood was pretty incredible," Hansen said with a smile. "For Peggy and I to be part of that was pretty heady stuff."
While they may be friends after years of working together on "First Man," Hansen still holds Armstrong's sensitivity in absolute regard. The only autograph Hansen has ever asked for is on the contract they signed three years ago. The men had their first photograph taken together this past July.
He also is not allowing friendship with Armstrong to color his writing or dilute the book's value to history. The book is an honest telling of the astronaut's life story, ("warts and all," Hansen adds) that will present Armstrong as a complicated, three-dimensional man thrust reluctantly into immortality.
"This is an authorized biography, and a lot of readers may suspect that that means that it will treat Neil with kid gloves," Hansen said. "That's not the case. Neil gave me complete freedom of interpretation and analysis. All he wanted to do was have input to make sure my facts were straight."
The book even contains a potentially unsettling surprise for Armstrong's hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio. "First Man" debunks a myth that became so popular that an "artifact" from the story is enshrined there in the Auglaize County (Ohio) Museum.
Hansen took two years off from the Auburn history department, which he once served as chair, to write the book, and began teaching full- time again in fall 2004. In June, on summer break, he was back at work refining the final drafts of "First Man," working with Armstrong and a New York editor. Careful editing took the original 1,200 page manuscript (in which Armstrong was not born until page 80) to a finished book of 600 pages.
While Hansen has made the rare transition between academia and the world of popular culture, his focus remains where it has always been--on preserving history for generations to come.
"My final obligation is not to Neil... it's not to any of the historical actors, it's to posterity," Hansen said. "It's to try to tell the story as genuinely and as profoundly as I can for the benefit of readers who don't know the history and for readers who are going to come across this book hundreds of years from now."
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