Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Neil Armstrong biography coming

The first and famously publicity-shy moonwalker is talking for a new book

By Chris Kridler
Florida Today

He was the first man to set foot on another world, and after that, we hardly heard from him.

Of course, we knew of Neil Armstrong after his "one giant leap for mankind" on the moon, but what the public knew about him afterward amounted to crumbs from the media table, a handful of interviews that never plumbed the depths of this legendary astronaut.

Now, one biographer has been given the task of recounting Armstrong's life, by Armstrong himself.

"People might imagine that everything there is to know about Neil's life has been told, but believe me, that is not the case," says James Hansen, an Auburn University history professor and the author of four books that focus on technology and space flight.

Several presses will bid this spring on the right to publish the biography, which Hansen is calling First Man. A preliminary agreement for a movie version directed by Clint Eastwood is already getting buzz.

All that, and a draft of the book likely won't be finished until fall 2004. Hansen has been busy traveling around the country - with stops in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Houston and elsewhere - interviewing Armstrong colleagues who are happy, finally, to be able to talk about their reticent friend.

Armstrong now lives in Indian Hill with his wife, Carol. He has two grown sons. From 1971 to 1979, after his retirement from NASA, he was a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He lived for a number of years on a Warren County farm.

Armstrong, 72, declined to talk about the book for this article.

"Neil is very, very concerned with accuracy," Hansen says. "He's not at all interested in publicity."

Hansen didn't get the assignment overnight. He wrote to Armstrong a few years ago, telling him of his interest in writing the biography. Armstrong responded that he was busy, thanked Hansen for his interest, and told him he had received several similar requests.

"It wasn't the response I wanted, but it was one I expected, really," the historian says.

Hansen persisted. He sent Armstrong a "goody box" of his books and got a letter in return. Thus began a months-long correspondence, followed by an invitation to come to Ohio to talk about the biography.

Armstrong asked for a formal book proposal. Several months later, they signed an agreement. It was important to Armstrong that the book be scholarly and independent. Hansen, with his background in writing about technology and flight, was a logical choice.

"He is an engineer," Hansen says. "So the technology means a lot to him."

Armstrong's letter of introduction is giving Hansen a chance to talk with people who have never discussed Armstrong publicly.

In addition, Hansen is conducting several hours of interviews with Armstrong.

"He's a hard person to interpret," Hansen says. "That's going to be the main challenge of the biography."

The book will look closely at the events that led Armstrong to his famous moonwalk on July 20, 1969.

Armstrong wasn't a space cowboy. He was an aeronautical engineer, a research pilot at the NASA center in Edwards, Calif.

Personal events might have pushed him away from Edwards and toward his career as an astronaut in 1962.

Armstrong and his then-wife, Janet, had a 2-year-old daughter who died of a brain tumor. Treatment was difficult. "Her little body just couldn't stand up to it," Hansen says.

Affected by death

"There are some real questions about how that death affected the family and affected Neil's decision at the time," he says.

Later, Armstrong had to save his two sons from a house fire in Houston, narrowly avoiding death, Hansen said. Neighbor and fellow astronaut Ed White and his wife, Pat, came over to help. (White died in a fire on the Apollo launch pad in January 1967.)

The Armstrongs and the Whites were close. Janet had to give Pat the news that White was killed in the fire.

"I want to show him as a three-dimensional human being," Hansen said. "I want to explore the iconic aspects of his achievement, but I want to make it clear that this is flesh and blood. ... He's a real man."

Because Armstrong has guarded his privacy so well over the years, people have been able to see him in their own mold - as a UFO witness or a convert to Islam, according to some rumors.

"Neil was so sphinxlike ... it made it possible for people to project all these things onto him," Hansen says.

Opening up

Recently, though, Armstrong has become a little more visible, perhaps because retirement has convinced him it is time to think about his legacy.

In December, he made an appearance at the Smithsonian Institution's Wright brothers centennial celebration in Washington. He and former astronaut John Glenn are doing the Wright brothers' voices for a video, with Armstrong as Orville, Hansen says. "It's great," he says. "You have two Ohio boys playing two Ohio boys."

Hansen's work is likely to garner a lot of attention.

"I am trying to bridge the gap in writing a book that I think is going to live up to all the highest scholarly standards," he says. "At the same time, he's a subject that millions of people should be interested in."

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