First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

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9780743257510: First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

On July 20, 1969, the world stood still to watch thirty-eight-year-old American astronaut Neil A. Armstrong become the first person to step on the surface of another heavenly body. Perhaps no words in human history became better known than those few he uttered at that historic moment. In a penetrating exploration of American hero worship, Hansen addresses the complex legacy of the First Man, as an astronaut and an individual.

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About the Author:

James R. Hansen is a professor of history at Auburn University. A former historian for NASA, Hansen is the author of ten books on the history of aerospace. He lives in Auburn, Alabama.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue: The Launch

After the Moon mission was over and the Apollo 11 astronauts were back on Earth, Buzz Aldrin remarked to Neil Armstrong, "Neil, we missed the whole thing."

Somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people, the largest crowd ever for a space launch, gathered at Florida's Cape Kennedy in the days leading to Wednesday, July 16, 1969. Nearly a thousand policemen, state troopers, and waterborne state conservation patrolmen struggled through the previous night to keep an estimated 350,000 cars and boats flowing on the roads and waterways. One enterprising state auto inspector leased two miles of roadside from orange growers, charging two bucks a head for viewing privileges. For $1.50 apiece, another entrepreneur sold pseudo-parchment attendance certificates with simulated Old English lettering; an additional $2.95 bought a pseudo space pen.

No tailgate party at any Southeastern Conference football game could match the summer festival preceding the first launch for a Moon landing. Sunglassed spectators dressed in Bermuda shorts or undressed in bikinis, even at this early hour firing up barbecue grills, opening coolers of beer and soda pop, peering through binoculars and telescopes, testing camera angles and lenses -- people filled every strand of sand, every oil-streaked pier, every fish-smelling jetty.

Sweltering in 90-degree heat by midmorning, bitten up by mosquitoes, still aggravated by traffic jams or premium tourist prices, the great mass of humanity waited patiently for the mammoth Saturn V to shoot Apollo 11 toward the Moon.

In the Banana River, five miles south of the launch complex, all manner of boats choked the watercourse. Companies such as Grumman Aircraft had hired the larger charters for the day to give their employees a chance to witness the product of their years of effort. Aboard a large cabin cruiser, the Grapefruit II, wealthy citrus grower George Lier of Orchid Island, Florida, playfully tossed grapefruit at passersby. Just offshore, two small African-American boys sat in a ramshackle rowboat casually watching the mayhem that was making it so hard to catch any fish.

On a big motor cruiser owned by North American Aviation, builder of the Apollo command module, Janet Armstrong, the wife of Apollo 11's commander, and her two boys, twelve-year-old Rick and six-year-old Mark, stood nervously awaiting the launch. Fellow astronaut Dave Scott, Neil's mate on the Gemini VIII flight in 1966, had arranged what Janet called a "numero uno spot." Besides Scott, two of Janet's friends -- Pat Spann, a neighbor from El Lago, Texas, whose husband worked in the Manned Spacecraft Center's Mission Support Office, and Jeanette Chase, who helped Janet coach the synchronized swimming team at the El Lago Keys Club and whose husband served in the Recovery Division at MSC -- were also on board, as were a few NASA public affairs officers and Dora Jane (Dodie) Hamblin, a journalist with exclusive coverage of the personal side of the Apollo 11 story for Life magazine.

Above them all, helicopters ferried successive groups of VIPs to reserved bleacher seating in the closest viewing stands a little more than three miles away from the launchpad. Of the nearly 20,000 on NASA's special guest list, about one-third actually attended, including a few hundred foreign ministers, ministers of science, military attaches, and aviation officials, as well as nineteen U.S. state governors, forty mayors, and a few hundred leaders of American business and industry. Half the members of Congress were in attendance, as were a couple of Supreme Court justices. The guest list ranged from General William Westmoreland, the U.S. army chief of staff in charge of the war in Vietnam, and Johnny Carson, the star of NBC's Tonight Show, to Leon Schachter, head of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers, and Prince Napoleon of Paris, a direct descendant of the emperor Napoleon.

Vice President Spiro T. Agnew sat in the bleachers while President Richard M. Nixon watched on TV from the Oval Office. Originally, the White House had planned for Nixon to dine with the Apollo 11 astronauts the night before liftoff, but the plan changed after Dr. Charles Berry, the astronauts' chief physician, was quoted in the press warning that there was always a chance that the president might unknowingly be harboring an incipient cold. Armstrong, Aldrin, and the third member of their crew, Mike Collins, thought the medical concern was absurd; if the truth be known, twenty or thirty people -- secretaries, space suit technicians, simulator technicians -- were coming into daily contact. Apollo 8's Frank Borman, whom NASA had designated as Nixon's special space consultant, assailed Berry's warning as "totally ridiculous" and "damned stupid" but stopped short of arguing for another reversal of plans, "because if anyone sneezes on the Moon, they'd put the blame on the president."

Two thousand credentialed reporters watched the launch from the Kennedy Space Center press site. Eight hundred and twelve came from foreign countries, 111 from Japan alone. A dozen journalists came from the Soviet bloc: seven from Czechoslovakia, three from Yugoslavia, and two from Romania.

Landing on the Moon was a shared global event which nearly all humankind felt transcended politics. British papers used two- and three-inch high type to herald news of the launch. In Spain, the Evening Daily Pueblo, though critical of American foreign policy, sent twenty-five contest winners on an all-expense-paid trip to Cape Kennedy. A Dutch editorialist called his country "lunar-crazy." A Czech commentator remarked, "This is the America we love, one so totally different from the America that fights in Vietnam." The popular German paper Bild Zeitung noted that seven of the fifty-seven Apollo supervisors were of German origin; the paper chauvinistically concluded, "12 percent of the entire Moon output is 'made in Germany.' " Even the French considered Apollo 11 "the greatest adventure in the history of humanity." France-Soir's twenty-two-page supplement sold 1.5 million copies. A French journalist marveled that interest in the Moon landing was running so high "in a country whose people are so tired of politics and world affairs that they are accused of caring only about vacations and sex."

Moscow Radio led its broadcast with news of the launch. Pravda rated the scene at Cape Kennedy front-page news, captioning a picture of the Apollo 11 crew "these three courageous men."

Not all the press was favorable. Out of Hong Kong, three Communist newspapers attacked the mission as a cover-up for the American failure to win the Vietnam War and charged that the Moon landing was an effort to "extend imperialism into space."

Others charged that the materialism of the American space program would forever ruin the wonder and beautiful ethereal qualities of the mysterious Moon, enveloped from time immemorial in legend. After human explorers violated the Moon with footprints and digging tools, who again could ever find romance in poet John Keats's question, "What is there in thee, moon, that thou shouldst move my heart so potently?"

Partaking of the technological miracle of the first telecommunications satellites launched earlier in the decade, at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, 50,000 South Koreans gathered before a wall-sized television screen. A crowd of Poles filled the auditorium at the American embassy in Warsaw. Trouble with AT&T's Intelsat III satellite over the Atlantic prevented a live telecast in Brazil (as it did in many parts of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean region), but Brazilians listened to accounts on radio and bought out special newspaper editions. Because of the Intelsat problem, a makeshift, round-the-world, west-to-east transmission caused a two-second lag in live coverage worldwide.

Shortly before liftoff, CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid, who at age sixty-six was seeing his first manned shot, described the scene to Walter Cronkite's television audience: "Walter...as we sit here today...I think the [English] language is being altered.... How do you say 'high as the sky' anymore, or 'the sky is the limit' -- what does that mean?"

Nowhere on the globe was the excitement as palpable as it was throughout the United States. In east Tennessee, tobacco farmers picking small pink flowers from tobacco plants crowded around a pocket-size transistor in order to share the big moment. In the harbor at Biloxi, Mississippi, shrimpers waited on the wharf for word that Apollo 11 had lifted off. At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where 7:30 a.m. classes were postponed, fifty cadets hovered around one small TV set. "Everybody held his breath," a twenty-year-old senior cadet from Missouri said. "Then, as the spaceship lifted off the ground, we began to cheer and clap and yell and scream." In the twenty-four-hour casino at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the blackjack and roulette tables sat empty while gamblers stood spellbound in front of six television sets.

The multitude of eyewitnesses assembled on and around the Cape, Merritt Island, Titusville, Indian River, Cocoa Beach, Satellite Beach, Melbourne, throughout Brevard and Osceola counties, as far away as Daytona Beach and Orlando, prepared to behold one of the most awesome sights known to man, second only perhaps to the detonation of an atomic bomb.

William Nelson, an engineering planner from Durham, Connecticut, sat with his family of seven and, gazing at the Apollo rocket looming eleven miles away, said excitedly, "They tell me I'll be able to feel the earth shake when it goes off. Once I see it, I'll know that it was worth all the heat and mosquitoes. All I know is that my kids will be able to say they were here." The voice of Jacksonville, Florida's Mrs. John Yow, wife of a stockbroker, quivered as she uttered, "I'm shaky, I'm tearful. It's the beginning of a new era in the life of man." Charles Walker, a student from Armstrong's own Purdue University, told a newsman from his campsite on a small inlet in Titusvill...

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