Discovering the Man Behind 'First Man'

For much of the world, theflight of Apollo 11 has been a distant memory - an adventure consigned to pagesof history - for 35 years. Yet even with manned spaceflight confined to earthorbit since the 1980s, the romance of the Apollo missions has never died.

A new generation of spacebuffs has been drawn to the lunar landing saga by movies and books written byand about the astronauts, most now in their 70s, who walked on the Moon. Butuntil now, one important piece of the historical puzzle, the life story of thefirst man to walk there, has been conspicuously missing.

In the generation that haspassed since his "giant leap" into immortality, Neil Armstrong hasbeen the living example of a paradox. The man whose first footsteps on anotherworld were a seminal event in human history has kept largely to himself in theyears since Apollo 11 made him a household name, perhaps the most famous namein 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. In2002, Armstrong signed off on a project he had never agreed to before - adefinitive telling of his life story that Hansen would write, and in whichArmstrong, his family and many of the great names in air and space explorationwould participate.

The resulting book,"First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong," arrives on store shelvesOct. 18. Published by Simon & Schuster, the movie rights to "FirstMan" have already been sold to Warner Brothers and Oscar-winningactor/director Clint Eastwood.

Media Blitz

For Hansen, 53, "FirstMan" is the undisputed highlight of a nearly 25-year career chroniclingthe history of aerospace and spaceflight. He wonders where his career might gonext, but for the time being is focused on a nationwide, 10-city book tour anda nationwide PR extravaganza that will see his book spotlighted across themedia landscape.

The zenith of the mediablitz will be a Nov. 7 feature by Ed Bradley on CBS' "60 Minutes".Preliminary plans call for interviews with Armstrong to be shot in "morethan one historic venue," Hansen said. It is not yet known whether Hansenhimself will be part of the "60 Minutes" piece.

"In a way it's kind ofmy own moon landing," Hansen said during an interview in June at his homenear the Auburn campus, in east-central Alabama. "It's hard to top this. Idon't think I can top it."

That someone has written abook about Armstrong's life is not surprising. His name is often mentioned inthe same breath as those of Charles Lindbergh and Christopher Columbus. ThatArmstrong helped with the book, giving Hansen more than 50 hours of in-depthinterviews, is the true triumph in what Hansen's book has accomplished.

While those who know him personallyhate the term, Armstrong, 75, has been described as something of a reclusesince Apollo 11 returned to Earth. He resigned from NASA just two years laterto teach aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. But thecrush of acclaim that followed him home from the Moon never faded away.

Armstrong's career as anastronaut and his travails as an icon are well documented, but his life's storyis exactly the opposite. In the years after he walked on the Moon, some ofliterature's biggest names - Stephen Ambrose and James Michener among them -pursued Armstrong's biography with no success.

So how is it that a historyprofessor who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, well known in scholarly circlesbut virtually unknown in popular publishing, landed the story of one of theworld's most famous explorers? He credits persistence, a unique point of viewand a little prodding from his students.

Hansen earned a Master'sdegree and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. While still an undergraduateback in Indiana, he considered law school. But two of his history professors,Gary Blumenshine and Ralph Violette, convinced Hansen to keep pursuing alifelong love of history. The professors took a special interest in him andconvinced him to pursue graduate school, even though jobs in teaching andscholarly research were scarce at the time.

"He was the beststudent we've ever had," Blumenshine said. "We encouraged Jim not tobe discouraged about the possibility of a career in academics, and that he hada real chance of success."

Life-long Love Found on GolfCourse

Hansen's lifelong love ofthe past began not in the classroom, but on a golf course in his hometown. In1961, 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 GolfCourse, where he spent hours golfing with and talking to many veterans of WorldWar II. His father served in the Army Signal Corps during the war, so heabsorbed the stories of his golfing companions with eager fascination. As theywalked from one hole to the next, he "interviewed" these men aboutthe war, about their lives and about the Great Depression.

"I think I was justtrying to find my father," Hansen said. "I hadn't been able to askhim these questions."

After Hansen began afour-year fellowship at Ohio State, he met yet another professor, June Fullmer,whose influence gave his career its most important nudge. Hansen took Fullmer'scourse in the history of the scientific revolution and from there, his intereststurned 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. DukeUniversity Professor Alex Roland, at the time a historian with NASA's HistoryOffice called to offer him a job writing about the early work in aeronauticsdone at the agency's Langley Research Center. The resulting book,"Engineer In Charge, A History of the Langley AeronauticalLaboratory," was published in 1987.

Roland had gotten Hansen'sname through a colleague of Fullmer's, Merritt Roe Smith, a professor ofhistory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I like to tell peoplethat I discovered (Hansen)," Roland said. "Alas, he was alreadydiscovered when I first met him. He is an excellent historian who has made anenviable reputation for himself."

To call Hansen"accomplished" in his field is an understatement. His resumestretches for 18 pages, including dozens of books, articles, professionalhonors and awards. Including "First Man," Hansen has authored orco-written nine books, one of which, entitled "SpaceflightRevolution," was nominated by NASA for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

"First Man" maynot be far behind for a similar honor. Simon & Schuster freely compares theimpact of "First Man" with that of 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner"Lindbergh," which traced the life of Charles Lindbergh, the firstman to fly across the Atlantic.

"Hansen's unprecedentedaccess to private documents, interviews with more than 125 subjects... and unpublishedsources yield the first in- depth analysis of this elusive American celebritystill renowned the world over," the publisher said in its fall 2005catalog.

According to MIT's Smith,Hansen has a rare combination of skills that make a project like "FirstMan" possible. He is both a deep researcher and a perceptive writer, Smithsaid, making it possible for him to sift out relevant material from mountainsof raw facts.

"Some people can dothat relatively easily and others cannot," Smith said. "You getoverwhelmed with the amount of material and you can't put pen to paper."

Credibility NotCredentials

After 20 years of writingabout the history of spaceflight and aerospace technology, Hansen wanted towrite a biography of someone who had been an engineer or a pilot and who had crossedover between engineering and science. About a year before he first contactedArmstrong, he mentioned the idea of writing the moonwalker's life story to agroup of his graduate students who began encouraging him to pursue the idea.

"I was ready to do abiography," Hansen said. "But obviously, I was challenged by thedaunting prospect of getting him to do it. I had no real confidence. There wasnothing about my approach that I thought would convince him."

But there was somethingunique about Hansen's credentials, if not his approach. Over his career, Hansenhad written more about the technology and science advances brought about by airand 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 backfrom 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 caughtArmstrong's eye. The book, "From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of anAeronautical Engineer," was about an aircraft designer, Fred Weick, withwhom the ex-astronaut was familiar. Armstrong liked the content and tone of thebook and agreed to sit down with Hansen to talk about writing his ownbiography.

"He wanted it to be ascholarly book," Hansen said. "I think if I had been a commercialwriter, he would not have paid much attention. He's not interested in featurestories about him."

Armstrong, Hansen andArmstrong's wife Carol first met in the early fall of 2001, shortly after theSeptember 11 terrorist attacks, and talked all afternoon about the directionthe project might take. Hansen's credentials were not the only thing that leftArmstrong feeling good. They even talked about their shared Midwestern roots.Armstrong was an Ohioan who went to college in Indiana; Hansen was a Hoosierwho went to college in Ohio.

Over the next few months,without any lawyers involved, Armstrong and Hansen worked out a contract thatboth signed in June 2002. Armstrong is personally receiving no money from theproject, Hansen said. Armstrong's share of book royalties will go toward theconstruction of a new engineering building at his alma mater, Purdue University.

In August 2002, Armstrongput his rare signature on Hansen's golden ticket into the world of spacehistory. It was a letter blessing Hansen's research and encouraging others tohelp him wherever possible. "[Hansen] has a deep and abiding interest inthe history of flight," Armstrong wrote. "He has known many of thegreat creative individuals who made their mark in the aviation and spaceprogress of the 20th century."

Hansen met even more ofthose great individuals during his research for "First Man," amassinga staggering archive of 125 interviews, including conversations withArmstrong's Apollo crewmates and many other astronauts, men he flew with in theKorean War, his first wife, his prom date and even the man who taught Armstrongto fly as a teenager. But the information flow was not always one way.

In 1962, Armstrong's parentsappeared on the program "I've Got A Secret" on the day their son waschosen to be an astronaut. Armstrong had been unable to catch the livebroadcast, and never saw the program until Hansen showed it to him aftergetting 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, Hansenshowed him the tape. The reserved Armstrong, sitting at the foot of the bed,said little, but a great warm smile spread across his face.

Preserving History

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 thatHansen knows the moonwalker's favorite flavor of ice cream (raspberry chocolatechip). Peggy Hansen and Carol Armstrong take walks and go to movies togetherduring 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 discussedEastwood's plans for making a movie out of the book.

"To be playing in athreesome with Neil Armstrong and Clint Eastwood was pretty incredible,"Hansen said with a smile. "For Peggy and I to be part of that was prettyheady stuff."

While they may be friendsafter years of working together on "First Man," Hansen still holdsArmstrong's sensitivity in absolute regard. The only autograph Hansen has everasked for is on the contract they signed three years ago. The men had theirfirst photograph taken together this past July.

He also is not allowingfriendship with Armstrong to color his writing or dilute the book's value tohistory. The book is an honest telling of the astronaut's life story,("warts and all," Hansen adds) that will present Armstrong as acomplicated, three-dimensional man thrust reluctantly into immortality.

"This is an authorizedbiography, and a lot of readers may suspect that that means that it will treatNeil with kid gloves," Hansen said. "That's not the case. Neil gaveme complete freedom of interpretation and analysis. All he wanted to do washave input to make sure my facts were straight."

The book even contains apotentially 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 offfrom the Auburn history department, which he once served as chair, to write thebook, and began teaching full- time again in fall 2004. In June, on summerbreak, he was back at work refining the final drafts of "First Man,"working with Armstrong and a New York editor. Careful editing took the original1,200 page manuscript (in which Armstrong was not born until page 80) to afinished book of 600 pages.

While Hansen has made therare transition between academia and the world of popular culture, his focusremains where it has always been--on preserving history for generations to come.

"My final obligation isnot to Neil... it's not to any of the historical actors, it's toposterity," Hansen said. "It's to try to tell the story as genuinelyand as profoundly as I can for the benefit of readers who don't know thehistory and for readers who are going to come across this book hundreds ofyears from now."

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: