Wednesday’s Book Review: “Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight”

9781743531594Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight. By Jay Barbree. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Introduction by John Glenn. Illustrations. 517 pages. ISBN: 978-1250040718. $19.68 USD. Hardcover with dustjacket.

Whatever else Jay Barbree’s Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight might be, it is not a biography of Neil Armstrong (1930-2012). There is only small insight into his beliefs, desires, loves, or hates. There is little discussion of his family and his goals. There is even less about his early years, only a cursory exploration of his Korean War experience, and nothing to speak of about his lengthy and significant activities since ending his career as a NASA astronaut in the early 1970s.

What is present is largely generic information about early NASA, especially an almost mission-by-mission summary of the Apollo program with an often tenuous relationship to Neil Armstrong. To his credit, Barbree offers a number of observations about the nature of human spaceflight throughout the last half century and a few sometimes humorous and insightful stories. Unfortunately, these mostly have little to do with Neil Armstrong even as they offer useful perceptions.

There are many areas that Barbree might have explored in some detail. For example, Armstrong sought neither fame nor riches, and when he might have done anything he wished after his completion of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission he chose to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. What was it about Neil Armstrong that prompted him to become an engineering professor teaching undergraduates? Explaining such decisions is part of the biographer’s responsibility.

I would also have very much appreciated an explication of the recent space policy issues that Armstrong became involved in. As the Space Shuttle was on track for retirement Barbree notes that in 2010 Gene Cernan (Apollo 17), Jim Lovell (Apollos 8 and 13), and Armstrong famously sent U.S. President Barack Obama a letter warning that failure to pursue an aggressive government spaceflight program, as they wrote, “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”

This episode did not happen in a vacuum, but unfortunately it is left unexplained in Neil Armstrong: A Life in Flight. That debate still rages, and Barbree might have made a contribution by exploring Armstrong’s role in depth. It originated in no small measure over whether or not to maintain a traditional approach to human spaceflight with NASA owning the vehicles and operating them through contractors. That was the method whereby America went to the Moon; it has proven successful over more than fifty years. That was seemingly the position of Neil Armstrong. Then there are those from the “new space” world that emphasize allowing private sector firms to seize the initiative and pursue entrepreneurial approaches to human spaceflight. Advocates of the more traditional approach believe that the other side will sacrifice safety; advocates of the entrepreneurial approach criticize the forces of tradition by pointing out their large, over-budget space efforts.

It is clear from this work that Barbree did not know Neil Armstrong very well despite having talked with him repeatedly; perhaps no one ever really knew him. Always gracious, Armstrong neither sought the spotlight nor the adulation of millions. He was nonplussed by all of the attention he received about Apollo 11 when he knew that he was simply one among thousands who made it possible. Regardless, he carried the weight of making that history on his back for more than forty years. Barbree might have explored these and other questions of Armstrong’s multifaceted persona. Nor does Barbree figure out the life of quiet honor and dignity Armstrong modeled. Some have characterized him as a recluse who stayed out of the spotlight, but when one tallies Armstrong’s activities since Apollo 11 there is much more there than anyone suspected. While some at NASA would have preferred that he had more publicly supported its initiatives, Armstrong’s thoughtful and reflective perspective carried weight because of the manner in which he conveyed it. Too bad, Barbree did not explore that aspect of Armstrong’s life.

This book can only be viewed as a disappointment given the possibilities it held. Jay Barbree has the longest tenure of any journalist covering the space program; his knowledge is both broad and deep. A more personal account by Barbree would have been welcomed by all. Instead, this book inaccurately announces itself as the “definitive” biography of Armstrong and some of the early advertising literature even claimed that it was an authorized biography.

Armstrong was a uniquely complex individual, one who has thus far been best captured in what was truly an authorized biography, James R. Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (Simon and Schuster, 2005). Armstrong cooperated with every aspect of that book, giving his time to Hansen, reviewing the chapters and offering comments, but never interfering with Hansen’s conclusions. There will be many other fine biographies yet written, no doubt, but because of Armstrong’s complexity none will ever be definitive. He was so much more than an astronaut, and because of this none will communicate fully the humanity, passions, triumphs, and significance of Neil Armstrong.

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3 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight”

  1. David Shomper, ex-Gemini & Apollo engineer says:

    I agree, a real disappointment, but then so was Barbree’s “Live From Cape Canaveral”, full of errors, just like this one.


  2. Doug I says:

    Good review – thanks for setting the record straight on this book. I was left a bit cold by Hansen’s book as well; as you point out, it’s unlikely at this point that Armstrong will ever be fully captured. I used to be firmly in the “recluse” camp, but have softened a bit. I wonder if any of his students have had a big impact…


  3. Dwayne Day says:

    Barbree discussed this book on The Space Show and from his comments there it seems as if Armstrong rejected Barbree’s early offer to do a book. Barbree could really only do this book after Armstrong’s death. I agree that he missed some important aspects of Armstrong. What exactly led to him finally taking a public stand on current space policy issues? My limited understanding of that is that someone (Mike Griffin?) initiated the discussion, then got Cernan and Lovell onboard and they recruited Armstrong. Armstrong told me that their statements were not ghost written by anybody else.

    I disagree that there was a more complex Armstrong to know. I think that Armstrong was not a very complex man. He had some simple values, in many ways traditional midwestern American values. There’s no need for us to read complexity into his modesty and desire for privacy.


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