Quirks & Quarks: The life of Neil Armstrong

neil-armstrong-ap-584.jpgAstronaut Neil Armstrong died last weekend (NASA/Associated Press)

Aired on a Quirks & Quarks special podcast (27/8/12)

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, passed away last weekend, at the age of 82. His "giant leap for mankind" changed our sense of our place in the universe. In honour of his legacy, Quirks & Quarks presented a special podcast featuring an interview with Armstrong's biographer from December 2005. (You can listen to the podcast below.)

Though a living legend after his moon walk, Armstrong was intensely private and reserved, and went to great lengths to avoid the public eye. But at the age of 75, he finally authorized James Hansen, a historian at the University of Auburn in Alabama, to write his biography, First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong.

Hansen told host Bob McDonald that it wasn't easy to get Armstrong's permission. "It actually took me as long to get the authorization as it did to research and write the book," he said. "I wrote Neil first in 1999, and I told him what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to do it, and why I thought it was so important it be done. And Neil wrote back a nice, cordial letter, as all letters from Neil would be, basically it was a polite brush-off."

Despite being turned down, Hansen decided to send Armstrong samples of his writing. "I had written a lot about engineering and about aerospace history. And Neil would never have authorized a biography if it was just going to be a celebrity biography, one that really didn't take his technical work into account," he said. Hansen managed to persuade Armstrong that he would take the kind of approach he'd approve of. "And when he got to the point where he was retiring from his board positions and would have time to work with an author, then he finally gave me the go-ahead."

first-man-125.jpgHansen acknowledged that Armstrong probably wouldn't like the title of the book, because he and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon together, at the same time. "So Neil feels he has no special claim on being first man," he said. But Hansen argued it was important to use that title, because the book was "both a biography and an iconography, a study of what society has projected onto him. Neil, as the commander of Apollo 11, was the first to step out onto the lunar surface. And to society, to the world at large at the time, that made Neil a very special man, to be the first human being to step onto another heavenly body."

Armstrong grew up in rural Ohio, and his love of flying started early (he had his pilot's licence before he had a driver's licence). At the age of 17 he went to Purdue University, on a Navy scholarship, intending to become an aircraft designer. He was required to serve three years in the Navy, in the course of his studies, and became a naval aviator. In his civilian career became a test pilot for the predecessor of NASA.

"When he graduated from Purdue, he had many different opportunities," Hansen said. "But he took the lowest-paying job because it meant he could become this research pilot for this civilian agency, the NACA, that he would be flying the most advanced experimental aircraft."

Given the excitement of this kind of job, why did Armstrong choose to join the space program? Hansen says he isn't sure, even after all his research, but he pointed to the fact that Neil's daughter, Karen, died of cancer at the age of two in early 1962. "I think it had a very fundamental effect on Neil's marriage, on his family, on Neil's own career," Hansen said.

It was only four or five months after his daughter's death that Armstrong put his name in for astronaut selection. Hansen believes that Armstrong "saw Apollo as a way of refocusing his energies and doing something important, and it was a way for him to really deal with his daughter's death."

Though the first group of astronauts.have a reputation as over-achievers, Hansen said that Armstrong's personality was very different. '"They have a pretty big ego, and Neil is not like that," he said. " He is so low-key, he's so modest, he never really tries to take centre stage away from people. You couldn't say that sort of thing about someone like Pete Conrad or Alan Shepard, or a Wally Schirra, or John Glenn. They were very outspoken, they were very front and centre."

Hansen described an incident that happened in 1968, when the astronauts were flying the lunar landing training vehicle (LLTV). "When Neil was making this flight, the machine went haywire. Neil was able to eject only a fraction of a second before the machine exploded." Alan Bean, an astronaut who shared an office with Armstrong, told Hansen that the day of the accident he came into the office late and found Armstrong sitting at his desk, doing paperwork. It was only when Bean went out into the hallway for a cup of coffee that he heard about the incident. When he went back into the office and asked Armstrong why he wasn't out telling stories about it, "Neil said, 'Well, I've got work to do.' And Bean said there was no other astronaut who would have handled it that way."

In his book, Hansen explains how NASA chose between Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as to who would be the first to step off the lunar module. It was "a political decision, made behind the scenes, by top NASA leadership in Houston," he said. They felt Armstrong "was best fit for the historic role that this first man would enjoy."

Some believed that it would have been better to choose an astronaut with a more outgoing personality, but Hansen thinks that NASA made the right choice. "I think Neil has handled his role with such integrity and such character that we couldn't have had a better first man than Neil Armstrong."

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