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Review: Neil Armstong: A Life of Flight

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Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight
by Jay Barbree
Thomas Dunne Books, 2014
hardcover, 384 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-250-04071-8

Two summers ago, two of the most famous astronauts in American history unexpectedly passed away. In July 2012, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died of cancer. The following month, Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon, died from complications after heart surgery. Their historical accomplishments were separated by 14 years, although the generational gap was arguably far wider: Armstrong’s feat was the pinnacle of the space race that opened the Space Age, while Ride’s milestone was part of a new era for NASA and the nation.

While billed by the publisher as “the definitive story of Neil’s life of flight,” the book falls short of being a “definitive” account of Armstrong’s life.

Their post-spaceflight careers did intersect at one time, because of a tragedy: both served on the Rogers Commission that investigated the loss of the shuttle Challenger in 1986. While Ride had considered Armstrong a hero, when they met on the commission for the first time he struck her as “a little paunchy… wearing a slightly baggy, slightly ‘hick’ suit—color of bale and alfalfa,” she wrote in her notes, as recounted by Lynn Sherr in her new biography of Ride (see “Review: Sally Ride”, The Space Review, June 9, 2014). Yet, as Sherr writes, Ride felt a “special kinship” with him, and even describes how the two evaded the media after the commission’s first meeting in Washington, ducking out a side door with Ride carrying Armstrong’s briefcase.

They avoided the press in large part of another similarity between the two: a desire to lead private lives, despite their famous accomplishments. Armstrong stayed out of the limelight after Apollo, to the point of widely being considered reclusive (even while being active in academia and on corporate boards.) Ride, as Sherr’s book recounts, was often uncomfortable with the public attention she received, and kept secret from even her closest friends some aspects of her life, including the disease that would claim her life.

Yet both had close friends in the media they often sought to avoid. Sherr, a broadcast journalist for ABC News, was friends with Ride for three decades, giving her insights and access few others had. Armstrong, meanwhile, had a long-running friendship with Jay Barbree, the NBC News reporter who has covered every American human space flight from Alan Shepard’s suborbital trip through the final Space Shuttle mission. Barbree, too, has used that relationship to support a biography of a famous astronaut.

Ultimately, though, Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight is something of a disappointment. While billed by the publisher as “the definitive story of Neil’s life of flight” (or, in materials accompanying the review copy, “the definitive biography of America’s most famous astronaut”), the book falls short of being a “definitive” account of Armstrong’s life. The subtitle of the book is more literal than literary: the bulk of the book is about Armstrong’s two spaceflights, Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, and the preparations for them. Much of the rest is about his earlier experience as a test pilot and his service in the Korean War as a Navy pilot: the book opens with an account of a sortie where Armstrong had to bail out of his jet after a bombing run.

Many other aspects of Armstrong’s life, though, get far less attention. Barbree spends little time on Armstrong’s childhood, mostly in the form of flashbacks that recalled his early interest in aviation. There’s also very little about Armstrong after Apollo 11—half his life, albeit a period deliberately spent largely out of public view. Barbree does devote a chapter to the Challenger accident and the Rogers Commission, although that section is almost as much about Barbree as about Armstrong: Barbree was the first to report that a failed O-ring was the cause of the accident, which, among other things, earned him a congratulatory phone call from Armstrong. (If Armstrong had any opinions of Ride complementary to her observations of him from their time on the commission, they’re not included in the book.)

There are, of course, other biographies of Armstrong, most notably James Hansen’s First Man, written with Armstrong’s cooperation (see “Review: two views of the first man”, The Space Review, July 17, 2006). However, First Man is nearly a decade old, and thus doesn’t cover the final years of Armstrong’s life. Barbree’s book, unfortunately, doesn’t offer much in the way of insights into those final years, beyond Armstrong’s growing concern about the uncertain future of NASA. Remarkably, Barbree devotes just a single sentence to Armstrong’s death: “He died August 25, 2012, following complications from heart bypass surgery.”

“I could only watch a talkative Neil Armstrong—yes, a talkative Neil Armstrong—brag on his first born,” Barbree recalls.

Barbree’s primary source for this book is Armstrong himself: “years of personal e-mails, recorded interviews, 51 years of this reporter’s notes and files,” he states in the book’s introduction. This includes, at times, extensive dialog that Barbree was not present to witness, although he assures us in the introduction that Armstrong’s words “are direct quotes by me and others I know to be trustworthy.” The book lists several dozen people in an acknowledgments section, but with limited information about their roles supporting the book.

For all that insider access, there is ultimately not much new—certainly in the way of major details—about Armstrong’s life in this book. If anything, the book’s treatment of Armstrong borders on hagiography, keeping him firmly on a pedestal as a skilled pilot yet humble man who helped America win the Space Race and secured himself a place in history, only to step out of the public limelight for the rest of his life; a Cincinnatus of the Space Age.

In a few places in the book, though, Armstrong does come through as more a person than a historical figure. Barbree recalls introducing his grandson, a football placekicker, to Armstrong, whose oldest son had played the same position. “I could only watch a talkative Neil Armstrong—yes, a talkative Neil Armstrong—brag on his first born,” Barbree recalls. But, as he notes in the next paragraph, the public rarely saw that side of Armstrong. “There Neil remained a mystery. His blue eyes seemed to reach all the way to his soul—they sent the message ‘keep your distance.’”

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight offers glimpses of Armstrong’s private life, but not many like the above passage. “In Neil’s last days I sensed the bottom line. He was satisfied with his life,” Barbree writes near the end of the book, recalling, among other things, a “brotherly embrace” the two shared during one of Armstrong’s final trips to Cape Canaveral. “He felt he had accomplished most things important.” Of that, there is little doubt.