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First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

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Soon to be a major motion picture, this is the first—and only—definitive authorized account of Neil Armstrong, the man whose “one small step” changed history.

When Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon’s surface in 1969, the first man on the Moon became a legend. In First Man, author James R. Hansen explores the life of Neil Armstrong. Based on over fifty hours of interviews with the intensely private Armstrong, who also gave Hansen exclusive access to private documents and family sources, this “magnificent panorama of the second half of the American twentieth century” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) is an unparalleled biography of an American icon.

In this “compelling and nuanced portrait” (Chicago Tribune) filled with revelations, Hansen vividly recreates Armstrong’s career in flying, from his seventy-eight combat missions as a naval aviator flying over North Korea to his formative trans-atmospheric flights in the rocket-powered X-15 to his piloting Gemini VIII to the first-ever docking in space. For a pilot who cared more about flying to the Moon than he did about walking on it, Hansen asserts, Armstrong’s storied vocation exacted a dear personal toll, paid in kind by his wife and children. For the near-fifty years since the Moon landing, rumors have swirled around Armstrong concerning his dreams of space travel, his religious beliefs, and his private life.

A penetrating exploration of American hero worship, Hansen addresses the complex legacy of the First Man, as an astronaut and as an individual. “First Man burrows deep into Armstrong’s past and present…What emerges is an earnest and brave man” (Houston Chronicle) who will forever be known as history’s most famous space traveler.

464 pages, Paperback

First published June 27, 2005

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About the author

James R. Hansen

26 books36 followers
James R. Hansen is a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama.His book From the Ground Up won the History Book Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1988. For his work, The Wind and Beyond (NASA) - (six-volume series), he was awarded the Eugene Ferguson Prize for Outstanding Reference Work by the Society for the History of Technology in 2005.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 486 reviews
Profile Image for trivialchemy.
77 reviews457 followers
January 17, 2009
What gall we must have to ask a child what he would be when he grows up! Here he is, tearing along in the delirious hallucination of childhood and we would already have him fill out the box, sign on the line, put the cube in the square hole; we would confront him with this terrible hunt for purpose and significance in the material, have him genuflect before the idol of maturity in activity, the sequestration of occupation in industry!

But when I was a kid that question -- of the many on old folks' checklist of generic questions for grade-schoolers -- rarely bothered me. I always just answered that I would be a writer/teacher/astronaut/architect/treasure-hunter/tree-house-builder/rich-person, and that seemed to satisfy the elderly without putting too many constraints on me.

No, the question that bothered me was always: "and who are your heros, kiddo?" (Old folks' questions to youngsters are always sandwiched between a conjunction and a diminutive epithet.) Because I didn't have any heroes! The most popular answers amongst my generation were undoubtedly "Michael Jordan" and "My Dad." But I sure didn't give a shit about this Jordan fellow, and "My Dad" always seemed forced. Because, really, whose Dad at Oak Hill Elementary was really that cool? You only said your Dad so word would eventually get back to him and he'd buy you a new pack of Marvel Comics cards or a Slurpee or whatever.

But then. Then I found out about space. And I found out that we had been to the moon.

And so of course there had to be a first guy to step on the moon, right? There was. His name was Neil A. Armstrong.

And that was that. Neil Armstrong was my hero. Oh my god, was he. My one and only. He was, he is. Nothing could possibly be more awesome than being the first person to step on an extraterrestrial body. Nothing.

And that carried on for many years. Until about a month ago when I saw this book: the first "authorized" biography of Neil Armstrong. It turns out that the man has been perceived as something of a recluse by the media, since roughly the end of Apollo 11 ceremonies, and that him allowing interviews and a biography is actually pretty astounding. But I would have never known that. Because really, I didn't know the first thing about Neil Armstrong, the man.

But that's the way it goes, isn't it? Our heroes are not elected for who they are, but for what they've done. Put another way: my hero has never been Neil Armstrong, it has been the first man on the moon.

Ironically, no one understood this better than Neil.
I think that people should be recognized for their achievements and the value that adds to society's progress. But it can easily be overdone. I think highly of many people and their accomplishments, but I don't believe that that should be paramount over the actual achievements themselves. Celebrity shouldn't supersede the things they've accomplished.

What Neil doesn't seem to understand is human nature itself. For we need that idol. We need something flesh and blood to make us believe that our flesh, too, can be greater than mere flesh; that our blood, too, can flow through the annals of history and be remembered not just as a name but as an act. The blood of something done, the blood of apotheosis.

And that has crossed my mind, too: that Neil Armstrong isn't human at all, and that's why he can't possibly understand. Norman Mailer, who could not bear the astronaut's placidity, his composure, would have it that way. This much is true -- that Neil Armstrong is easily the most inscrutable of all historical personages. He's either totally without emotion, or understands his place in Valhalla so thoroughly as to deny us their makeup. This is a man who would have rather been on a later Apollo flight -- one in which more elaborate engineering could have been tried -- but knew he would submit to being the first man, if he was called by duty.

This is a man that never asked for the moon, never wished for it, never craved it as I crave to be in his place. Would you ever, he was asked, nights, or most nights, just go out quietly and look at the Moon? Ponder your destiny, your calling? I mean did it become something like "my goodness"?

No, answered Neil. No, I never did that.

He's either the perfect hero, or the worst hero ever.

But it doesn't matter, does it? He was the first man on the moon. And so he's my hero.
Profile Image for George Bradford.
144 reviews
August 27, 2012
It's difficult to believe there has ever been a more accomplished human being who was more modest than Neil Armstrong.

On July 20, 1969, Neil A. Armstrong became the first human to step on the surface of a world beyond our Earth. He was 38 years old.

Armstrong landed on the lunar surface as perhaps the premier aviator of his generation. He'd been flying for 22 years (having earned his pilot's license as a teenager before being old enough to apply for a driver's license). His aviation achievements were unparalleled: dozens of successful combat missions in the Korean War, first test flights of the rocket-powered X-15, first ever docking in space, survivor of near disasters in space, among other adventures.

And, truth be told, this aviator and engineer was more interested in flying to the moon than walking on it.

But, for all of his achievements, Neil Armstrong was reclusive. His introversion often made him misunderstood. And in this authorized biography, James Hansen reveals for the first time who Neil Armstrong really was.

Armstrong gave Hansen access to private documents and unpublished sources. Hansen conducted interviews with more than 125 subjects (including more than fifty hours with Armstrong himself). And the resulting book delivers the first (and only) detailed accounting and in-depth analysis of this reluctant hero.

"First Man" also contains the most thorough telling of the first lunar landing I've ever read. (And I believe I've read them all). That alone makes the book essential reading.

But there is so much more in these pages.

After walking on the moon, Armstrong could have done anything. His only desire was to return to his rural home in Ohio and to teach engineering at the University of Cincinnati. So, that's what he did. Neil Armstrong worked on his farm, taught the next generation of engineering students and continued his childhood fascination with flying.

He never cashed in. He never sold out. There would never be a Neil Armstrong action figure (or any other product). And he never charged a fee for a personal appearance, photograph or autograph.

Neil A. Armstrong lived a life of service, achievement and modesty. He made commitments to things bigger than himself. He honored those commitments. He racked up unprecedented achievements. And he went on with his life without bragging or boasting.

His biography is not a light read. Armstrong chose James Hansen to write his biography in part because Hansen is an Engineering professor. As a result, the text frequently contains detailed explanations of engineering and physics. These make for arduous reading. I frequently found myself re-reading pages in an attempt to understand the information being conveyed.

I'm confident that's precisely the way engineer Neil A. Armstrong wanted it.

And, when I finished reading "First Man", I was convinced of one thing the book never discusses. The Apollo program had an incredible talent pool of Astronauts. NASA probably couldn't have gone wrong in selecting any one of them to be the first human to attempt landing on the moon. (And competition for that opportunity was intense.) But when NASA selected Neil A. Armstrong they picked the absolute BEST candidate to be the first human to walk on the moon.

Neil A. Armstrong is more than a genuine American hero. Much much more. And "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" reveals why.
Profile Image for Ron.
Author 1 book135 followers
July 26, 2014
Three hundred pages of story lost among four hundred pages of gossip and trivia. Tells Neil's story in excruciating detail, including multiple tellings of false tales--each of which is detailed then rebutted.

Too bad because Neils' story is a good one, and the portions on what Neil was actually doing were good.

Better than Sominex.
Profile Image for Christopher.
169 reviews37 followers
July 11, 2014
James R. Hansen's 'First Man' throws down the gauntlet, striving to be the definitive biography on Neil Armstrong, the first man ever to walk on the moon.

It is impressively researched, but Hansen spends much of the book showing off what he learned. As a result, we have to wade through lots of minutiae. Much of the extraneous data should have been dumped into the appendices instead. To me, it was as dry as a college textbook.

It's a book that's more about Armstrong's career than his personal life, but that's really no fault of the author. Armstrong showed Hansen exactly what he needed to know and nothing else. Ultimately, we don't learn anything new about him; just more of what we already knew: he's smart, loves flying; he's aloof and hard to get to know.

Hansen spends far too much time debunking old myths about Armstrong, even very minor ones that really don't deserve this kind of forum. Many of these were better left in appendices or otherwise pushed to the margins.

I was very disappointed in Hansen's treatment of Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin, who is portrayed as severely jealous of Armstrong's assignment as the first moonwalker. Hansen then accuses Aldrin of deliberately leaving Armstrong out of photos taken on the lunar surface. Hansen even claims Aldrin became an alcoholic because he couldn't get over not being first to step on the moon. It's been at least eight years since I read this book, and I am still surprised Hansen stooped so low. I don't think Armstrong himself would have muddied his hands with such gossip.

Overall, the book is good, but not great. The research is outstanding. The analysis is only average. The editorial choices were lacking. I think the book could have been stronger with one or two additional edits and refinements. This could have been a Pulitzer winner in the hands of someone like A. Scott Berg, but ultimately it's just above average. The book may be a giant leap in some ways, but it's only a small step in others.
Profile Image for reherrma.
1,650 reviews26 followers
October 23, 2018
Durch Zufall bin ich auf diese "autorisierte Biografie" über Neil Armstrong gestoßen, ohne dass ich vorher wußte, dass dieses Buch verfilmt wurde und im Novemer 2018 in Deutschland in die Kinos kommen sollte. Da ich als Raumfahrt-Fan bisher immer auf die unautorisierten Biografien eines meines Jugend-Helden zurückgreifen musste und wusste, dass Armstrong sehr, sehr sparsam mit Äußerungen über seine Person und die Einschätzungen über Gott und die Welt war, habe ich sofort und ohne lange zu überlegen zugegriffen und habe es , auch nach der Lektüre, nicht bereut.
Der Biograf James R. Hansen hat die Innenwelt des ersten Menschen auf dem Mond (der ja auch der erste Ingenieur !!! war der den Mond betreten hat, er hat das auch immer wieder betont und das hat mich ungemein führ ihn eingenommen) m.E. sehr gut getroffen...
Der Biograph beginn das Buch mit den Vorfahren der Armstrongs und denen seier deutschstämmigen Mutter, er beschreibt seine Kind- und Jugendjahre, als er seine Führungspersönlichkeit bereits bei den Pfadkindern erproben konnte. Schon sehr früh (im Alter von 16 Jahren) begann er zu fliegen und machte den Pilotenschein, bevor er ein Auto fahren durfte. Von da an führte sein Weg direkt zur Fliegerei, die ihn schon als Kind begeistert hat. Bei der Navy studierte er Luftfahrttechnik, wurde Kampfpilot im Koreakrieg, verließ die Navy und ging zur Vorläuferorganisation der NASA und wurde Testpilot in Edwards, er flog damals die legendäre X1 und stieß bis zum Rand des Weltraums damit vor. Im Jahre 1962 wurde er schließlich mit der 2. Astronautengruppe Astronaut im Gemini-Programm...
Der Flug zum Mond mit Apollo 11 nimmt natürlich einen Großteil des Buches ein und ist nach wie vor spannend zu lesen. Was mich immer wieder erstaunt ist, daß Armstrong, obwohl er keine große Weltraumerfahrung hatte (er hatte neben Apollo 11 nur den Flug als Kommandant mit Gemini VIII geflogen, ein Flug, der als gescheitert gegolten hat) von der NASA trotzdem als Kommandant und als erster Mensch, der den Mond betreten hat, eingeteilt wurde.
Immer wieder stellte ich den Vergleich zwischen den beiden Helden meiner Jugend an, zwischen Armstrong und Perry Rhodan und ich kann es kaum glauben; von allen Astronauten ist Armstrong der fiktiven Person unseres Mann im All am nächsten, Kühl und überlegt; ein Mensch, der sich nie in den Vordergrund stellt, ein zutiefst grundanständiger Mensch mit klaren Prinzipien...
Ich kann dieses Buch nur jeden empfehlen, der mehr über die Raumfahrt der 60er Jahre wissen will, wie man dieses Unternehmen gestemmt hat und welche Männer das waren...
Profile Image for Boris.
409 reviews154 followers
November 27, 2018
Това, което се крие под мита "Първият човек" се оказа много по-интересно от самия мит.
За съжаление беше написано... не достатъчно добре. Но заради интересността на самите факти, си струва да се прочете.
Profile Image for Brad.
76 reviews
July 16, 2018
Good, Not Great.

I’ve been a space geek since I was a little kid, and I am an avid reader of biographies, and was thus very excited to see an authorized biography of Mr. Armstrong released several years ago. However, after finally getting a chance to read it, I found the book lackluster at best.

I must give Mr. Hansen credit on his research, as it is unbelievably meticulous and thorough, though often to a fault. I don’t believe that the general reader cares much as to the differing heart rates of Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin during day 3 of the Apollo 11 mission, for example. Or how many times Mr. Aldrin urinated while on Apollo 11. Just a couple of examples of details that could have been eliminated; they disrupted the flow of an otherwise engaging read. Other unnecessary additions were lengthy transcripts of newspaper articles and television programs, when the author could have simply referenced the materials in the bibliography and moved on.

The biggest problem that I had with the book was that it was a shameless bash-fest of Buzz Aldrin. The interesting part is that Mr. Armstrong truly never uttered a negative word about the man with whom he walked on the Moon. Mr. Hansen pulls scattered opinions from other astronauts, and then uses those opinions to doctor his interview questions - some of which are included in the book - with Mr. Armstrong. If the reader does not approach this book with an open mind, it would be very easy to come away from it thinking that Buzz Aldrin is petty, selfish, and a little bit malicious. In a book like this one, it is the author’s job to present the facts and allow to reader to form opinions on those facts; this is sadly not the case, as Mr. Hansen clearly had some pre-conceived notions which were shamelessly projected into the writing of this book.

As Mr. Hansen was privileged to finally have access to Mr. Armstrong, he naturally has a heavy bias toward the man. This is very clear especially in the closing chapters of the book when the author is justifying the reclusive lifestyle of Mr. Armstrong. The latter really comes off throughout the book as aloof, somewhat “holier-than-thou,” and yes, reclusive. Mr. Hansen defends this lifestyle in a very syrupy fashion, resulting in some stilted and cumbersome reading throughout the final 3-4 chapters.

Once again, a detailed and thoroughly researched study of Neil Armstrong, and one that I would recommend to the space geeks and the I-want-to-be-an-astronaut crowd, but not one of the better biographies I’ve ever read.
Profile Image for Daniel Villines.
377 reviews50 followers
August 25, 2012
25AUG12: A truly amazing man that has embarked on his final journey through history. Knowing that he was still alive cast a shining light on humanity's potential. Now that he's gone, it's up to humanity to recognize the hope that he has left behind.


As a three-year-old son of a typical nuclear family in 1969, I was awoken from my sleep, placed beside our TV, and photographed next to Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon. Through all these years, Neil Armstrong remained a hero that was codified in my three-year-old mind. An image that was forged by extremely enthusiastic parents who took pride in what was being accomplished, in real time, in front of their eyes and next to their son.

For the next forty years, I worked on becoming the person that I wanted to be; an engineer involved with making things work and letting others know how these things could be made. As I grew into this person, I realized that pride for engineers is rooted in their methods and not in their results. After all, the results should be a foregone conclusion. While this makes for truly boring dinner table conversations, quiet solitude is the environment for engineering achievements.

First Man clearly defines Neil Armstrong far beyond the image of the hero that was stamped in my mind so many years ago. He is truly an engineer and throughout this book, great perspective is gained into his methods, his achievements, and his life. More importantly, however, First Man allows all of us to take pride in our collective first steps on the Moon. We are all heroes and Neil Armstrong lets us know that we should all share in the pride associated with our heroism, equally.
340 reviews54 followers
April 19, 2018
Neil Armstrong proofread this bio about him which led to some interesting perspectives and gave real insight to his story. The Life magazine picture about his wife, Janet Armstrong praying during Neil's moon launch was hilariously revealed that she was actually kneeling to hear the radio better !!
While the positives about Neil proofread had its advantages the disadvantage was the author took hero worship of Neil to ridiculous heights and the book should have been named First Man (on the Moon) to Second Man( to walk on water)
Profile Image for Kivrin.
726 reviews11 followers
December 29, 2016
Wow, it was long and pretty slow in places. The chapters on the moon landing were fascinating! I was 5 years old at the time, and while I distinctly remember someone showing me the moon and telling me men were there, I had little other knowledge of the event. There are lots of details on Armstrong's life before becoming an astronaut, and only a few spare chapters on his life after leaving NASA. Interesting read but not exactly an enjoyable one.
Profile Image for Robert.
1,405 reviews97 followers
March 23, 2015
This has been an amazing audiobook experience, far better than anticipated. For one thing, the author's portrayal of Armstrong is hardly a hagiography, which was a relief. His many virtues were dutifully reported, but I was amazed at how critical the narrative was of certain highly personal episodes and Armstrong's reactions to them, such as the death of his daughter Karen. But what made the experience much more memorable for me was the seamless integration of actual recordings of the historic communications between the Apollo 11 astronauts and Mission Control. When it came time for the "eternally famous words" Armstrong uttered upon stepping out onto the lunar surface, I confess I was thoroughly moved...and I was born 10 years after the landing!
Profile Image for Leo.
4,247 reviews385 followers
February 16, 2021
I thought this was a safe bet being about astronaut Neil A. Armstrong. But I found this massive book to be tedious to get through and I didn't gel with James R Hansen way of writing about Neil A. Armstrong found it rather boring and a bit bla bla bla which I don't want to feel like in a biography or nonfiction.
123 reviews
February 27, 2019

I almost gave up on this book. The book is bogged down with the most minor details. Who would think that the moon landing could be boring? I can - when we read over and over again about the various test flights that didn't actually amount to any significant happening except that Neil did a test flight on x date. The author actually goes through a list of Armstrong's ancestors. It felt like reading the bible "and so and so begat so and so who begat so and so.." Seriously? The book was also bogged down by various airplanes that Neil flew. Which would be interesting except that it was so detailed and mundane. "On x day Neil flew the x plane and x happened." Or it even provided his "marks" for certain classes and flights he took while in training. You might be interested in knowing that Neil sometimes only got "acceptable" marks. Further the author told us that Neil's mother was religious a lot. I got it the first 10 pages. The worst part of this book is that he makes Neil Armstrong into a boring, aloof and least interesting person who went to the moon.
Profile Image for Silvia (Library Unbounded).
153 reviews8 followers
January 30, 2023
First, I would like to state that Neil Armstrong has been one of the most inspiring people for me ever since I can remember. His life's story is nothing short of magnificent - filled with hard work and greatness and tragedy. I have nothing but respect and admiration for this great man!

With that being said, this book is very heavy on the numbers, and names, and dry facts. And while the factual truth is priceless, this writing style makes the book hard to read and the story hard to follow at times. Often the story will be interrupted by a lesson in engineering or another equally academic subject, making it slow and rather unaccessible.
I wish that the author would've shaved some of the minute details, while still sticking exclusively on the truth. This would've reduced the size of the book significantly and kept the reader's attention better (at least this reader).

What I really appreciated was the debunking of some of the "urban legends" related to Neil Armstrong and the sensationalism pushed forward by people with financial interest in it. It was refreshing and made me respect the author.

I am giving this book 3.5 stars and am grateful I got to read it.
Profile Image for Matt.
617 reviews
March 30, 2022
A boy from Ohio fascinated by planes and how they are engineered one day becomes the most famous man on the planet by stepping onto the Moon. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong is the authorized biography of the Apollo 11 commander by James R. Hansen.

Hansen centers the biography on the Apollo 11 mission, which from the decision to name Neil Armstrong commander to his return home. The first quarter and the final quarter of the biography literally bookends those approximately eight months with the former detailing Armstrong’s childhood passion for flight that led to his career as a test pilot then astronaut and the later detailing how the modest Armstrong adjusted—or did not—to worldwide fame that only lessened in everyday life as he grew older. Given the number of pages that Hansen concentrated on Armstrong’s time with NASA, there are a lot of vehicle abbreviations that need to be negotiated when reading but Hansen does a good job in make sure readers learn the terms however if one doesn’t pay attention, you can miss something and get confused. Yet this book is a fantastic read thanks to Hansen’s interviews of Armstrong and his extensive research into the Apollo 11 logs which flesh out those momentous July days for those not alive to experience them.

First Man is a very well written biography that blends NASA archived logs, author interviews of Armstrong, and interviews of fellow Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
Profile Image for Matt Robertson.
162 reviews3 followers
July 20, 2018
This outstanding and incredibly detailed book follows the arc of Neil Armstrong’s singular life from his ancestry to his twilight years. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including, of course, NASA materials, newspapers, and magazines, but also interviews with family, friends, and colleagues and Neil himself, Dr Hansen constructs a faithful portrait of the first man to walk on the Moon. As Hansen notes, much of Neil’s life after 1969 was affected by this achievement of “first”, which Neil has always maintained is not something he sought nor placed much importance on. But in one of life’s ironies, he was selected for the honor while his crewmate Buzz Aldrin, who really wanted it, was not. Discussion of the reasoning behind this decision is detailed in this book, along with alternative explanations, painting a fuller picture of what happened behind the scenes than we usually see. Hansen gives similar treatment to a number of other apocryphal stories, of which there are many. It seems that by coming in peace for all mankind, man was given license to project his own perspectives onto that of Neil Armstrong. For example, I did not know that many Muslims believed that Neil converted to Islam on the Moon.

Neil’s own reticence to speak out may be partly to blame. But that may be just one of many reasons to admire the man, to hold him up as a role model. After reading this book, I know that I do.

“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks pocket-protector nerdy engineer.”

This book is long and sometimes dense with details, but it is very well written and never dull. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the space program or experimental test flight, or for witnessing how far hard work and focus can take you.
Profile Image for Don Alesi.
91 reviews43 followers
February 12, 2018
I would like to have given this book an extra 1/2 star if possible. At almost 600 pages, I wondered if I could get through the book and not consatntly falll asleep. I was pleasantly surprised. Neil Armstrong was as a very private person. The authorised biography of the man who in my oppion was the Charles Lindbergh of the sixties was not as private as he was just careful with words and who he chose to deal with.
The most interesting thing about the book is that Neil himself will confirm, deny, or not know many of the things writen about him and his fellow space men.
If you are interested in the first man to set foot on the moon and are willing to invest the time needed to read this book, then do it. You will not be disapointed
Profile Image for Judy.
1,656 reviews275 followers
December 29, 2021
I read this biography of Neil Armstrong a chapter a day for about a month. My young adult years were spent during the space race so I read it as research for my autobiography. Armstrong authorized James Hansen to write his biography and was content with how it came out.

I had so much to ponder as I read. The day that Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, I was on a cross-country honeymoon trek with my first husband. We were camping in the Grand Tetons National Park. We were hippies, anti-war, pretty much anti everything our government was doing. We were horrified to see people in their RVs in the park watching television while being surrounded by trees and elks.

Fifty-two years later I am still horrified by most of what Americans get up to but this book made me understand that man's reach for outer space, for exploration of distance, for knowledge of places and entities different from us, is not necessarily a bad thing. Neil seems to have been a person who had that reach but who also backed it up with extremely hard work, training and knowledge. Admiration is due.

The invasive nature of fame was not something he was as prepared for. He did his best to navigate it while always encouraging better knowledge, training and exact science. I suspect there are more of such responsible people in the world than the news would have us believe. May we protect and preserve such people for they are our true leaders as human beings.
Profile Image for Mary Elizabeth Dial.
2 reviews2 followers
September 28, 2016
In the interest of honesty, I should probably say that I would never have picked up First Man in a bookstore. If I hadn't been lucky enough to choose an undergrad honors seminar more or less at random and end up in Dr. Hansen's Astronaut as Icon class, I probably would never have thought about NASA for longer than a minute. And now my friends wish I would just shut up about Neil Armstrong already.

Yes, this biography is long and intimidating, but it's also straight-up incredible. Very few authors could go into this level of detail without putting each and every reader to sleep. Hansen manages to take detours into the history of space travel and into the lives of Armstrong's family and colleagues and end up with valuable background information, rather than getting lost.

Most importantly, Hansen demystifies Armstrong without tarnishing his image. The end result is the reader being able to see Armstrong not as a legend but as a person who had an amazing opportunity and took it, and was affected by it for the rest of his life. The moon landing is covered, and in detail too, but not at the expense of the rest of Armstrong's life.

Yes, it took me an embarrassingly long time to finish this book. It's not exactly something you can carry with you to read at lunch, and maybe this level of detail just isn't for everyone. But I'm glad I gave it the time and really got into it. I have a new appreciation for arguably the most iconic American since George Washington, and a whole lot of historical fun facts that I WILL use to annoy my friends and family.
Profile Image for Sean Wilson.
190 reviews
July 28, 2019
Three stars strictly based on the author's research, however First Man is ultimately disappointing due to Hansen's incredibly dry, factual style. Perhaps I'm being too critical after reading American Prometheus, a masterpiece of biographical writing, but this book sadly isn't engaging. While the research on Neil Armstrong's test pilot and NASA career is fascinating, Hansen fails to involve the reader in these fantastic adventures. It's all very matter-of-fact and seems as distant as the stars that Armstrong studied during his missions.
Profile Image for P.S. Winn.
Author 74 books343 followers
August 17, 2018
The author captures not only the man many calla hero, but also delves into the real life story of the man behind the astronaut suit. If you are interested in not only Neil Armstrong, but a look back at history, grab this one.
Profile Image for John Kaess.
404 reviews
June 21, 2012
Get the audio CD's, it has actual audio and video from the missions. This is beyond fantastic. A must listen to for anyone the least bit interested in the astronauts and/or the Apollo missions.
243 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2020
Excellent biography of one of my heroes. Well-written and comprehensive look at not only what he accomplished, but also on the toll his fame took on his life. I learned a lot about a person I thought I already knew. 5 stars.
Profile Image for Nick.
201 reviews6 followers
September 27, 2014
The imaginatively named authorized biography of Neil Armstrong (not to be confused with the Albert Camus The First Manbook of the same name). I feel for the author; Armstrong is apparently legendarily taciturn, which makes for a lot of sentences like "Neil doesn't remember..." or "Neil couldn't confirm that..." This may sound annoying, but I found it kind of charming; Armstrong's quiet, reserved self-confidence seems very commendable to me (and familiar; Armstrong reminds me of a certain someone's older sister, actually). What does get annoying is how technical the book can be. I understand - in fact, I applaud - the level of care and detail that goes into the moon landing (and the preparation and immediate aftermath). What I don't understand is why this level of detail is gone into for the entire part of the book leading up to the moon landing. Do we really need to be given a rundown on the difference between the average height and weight of the first versus the second group of astronauts (to provide one example)? The amazon review points out that the author actually counts up how many shells, bombs, and rockets were fired per month when Neil is a fighter pilot in the Korean war, and this is exactly as boring and as tedious as you think it is - any interesting events are rendered lifeless by an endless parade of dry technical details and meaningless figures. The author even starts early, giving us 10 generations of the Armstrong clan before Neil is even born. Bizarrely, the opposite occurs at the end of the book -after the moon landing, it's like a switch has been flipped; The remainder of the book - and there isn't much - is basically "Uh, then he never gave any interviews, the end."

My recommendation: The moon landing and the parts immediately surrounding it are about a third of the book, and they're a great third of a book. This is where the author's endless attention to detail is a powerful positive instead of a deadly dull negative, and what could in the wrong hands be boring (since you know the outcome already presumably) or tedious (given the amount of technical detail) is where the book shines and almost makes plodding through the rest of it bearable. The thing is, you don't really need to plod through the rest of the book. Skip until when Neil starts working as a test pilot, and close the book after he returns home from the "Giant Step" tour coming off the moon landing. You'll have a well-written, gripping account. Read the whole thing, like I did, and you'll have a slog with a cracking middle. (Admittedly, the author remains humorless, managing to turn Buzz Aldrin's amusing anecdote about being the first man to pee his pants on the moon into a paragraph-long investigation of who truly peed in his pants on the moon first, but this somehow feels fitting given Armstrong's character and desire to get it right, no matter what makes the best story.)
247 reviews5 followers
July 31, 2019
I'm a child of Apollo; it forms some of my earliest memories. In fact, I thought by the time I grew up, it would be too late to contribute to the adventure, that there would be hundreds or thousands of people living in space and it would be routine. Curiously, or perhaps not for the geeky kid I was, my interest was far more in the machines and the science than in the people. I read some articles and books with their bios, but I never went on a real binge of reading astronaut biographies. Time to change that; they are some of the most interesting (always) and best (often) humans.

I started reading this on July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the first steps on the Moon.

It's a long, very detailed book. It's also an authorized hagiography, er, biography. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit, but the author's claim in the end notes to approach his subject from a neutral, critical point of view is belied by the multiple occasions on which he defends Armstrong's heart rate, and takes every opportunity to knock any of his critics.

Perhaps for me the newest, and most most interesting, part was Armstrong's time in Korea. I knew he had been a pilot there, but none of the harrowing details. He does get details about Armstrong's R&R in Japan wrong, referring to Yokosuka as "Yah-KOOS-kah" (both 'o's should be pronounced about like the 'o' in 'okay'; he is correct that the 'u' is essential silent), and to the "Daihatsu" of Kamakura (he means "Daibutsu").

The parts about his time as a test pilot are also gripping. It does include the claim that *62* test pilots died in *36 weeks* at Edwards, in the year 1952. Although the book includes extensive notes, that particular datum is unfootnoted. I discussed it on Twitter with a former Edwards archeologist, who could neither refute nor substantiate the number, and the official lightweight history of Edwards on the Air Force website really whitewashes the sacrifices made there, so I remain uncertain the number is correct.

I also very much enjoyed learning about the detailed engineering contributions he and the other astronauts made -- designing and building a spacecraft was very much a collaborative process, it seems.

Oh, and if you're reading the Kindle version, it's not obvious, but there's a collection of photos at the end. Skip forward to the Acknowledgments, then page forward a few pages.
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