HISTORIAN'S CORNER - January, 2006

BY: Matt Grogan

In response to my last article on the Prime program, I received a letterfrom Bill Warren letting me know that he worked on the program in Baltimoreand was the Group Engineer for the installation and arrangement of all theequipment on PRIME.  Bill later moved to Denver where he was a GroupEngineer on the Viking Program working for Ken Hopper and Jim Sterhardt.  Bill eventually retired from Michoud in 1983.  Thanks Bill for the update. I also received a plastic model of the X-24B from Dabby Dabkowski as wellas other materials.  Thanks, Dabby.

I thought I would depart from my usual format of writing about a LockheedMartin program to tell you about a recently published book I have just finishedreading that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.  It’s titled,"First Man", by James R. Hansen, and is the authorized biography of NeilA. Armstrong, the Commander of Apollo 11, and the first man to set foot onthe moon on July 20, 1969.  Armstrong has been virtually silent abouthis experiences in commanding the Apollo 11 mission almost 36 years ago,and his life before and after that historic event.  Several of the otherastronauts have published autobiographies and have become national figures. For example, Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 11 and the secondman on the moon, has appeared numerous times on various TV shows, has publishedsix books, and has his own website to promote his services and merchandise,and has founded a rocket design company (Starcraft Boosters, Inc.). Armstrong, on the other hand, became an Engineering professor at the Universityof Cincinnati after retiring from NASA in 1971, shunned the public spotlightexcept for occasional press conferences, and granted almost no interviewsuntil agreeing to Hansen’s request to write his authorized biography.  This authorization gave Hansen access to Armstrong’s papers, friends, family,colleagues, and Armstrong’s full support.

James Hansen is a former NASA historian and a professor of History at AuburnUniversity.  I found Hansen’s direct and penetrating insight into NeilArmstrong fascinating, just as the dust cover promised.   As oneexample, Hansen’s description of the "heated discussion" between Armstrongand Chris Kraft, the Houston Mission Control Director, about the lunar landingMission Rules the month before the launch of Apollo 11 was particularly interestingto me.  I worked in Kraft’s Directorate at the time as a Manned SpacecraftCenter Civil servant and know how "forceful" he could be.  Hansen interviewedKraft and describes Kraft’s concern that Armstrong would proceed with a landingon the Moon in spite of certain Mission Rules.  This confrontation betweenthe normally unflappable pilot-in-command and the strong-willed boss of theMission Control came across in a very credible fashion.  The book alsopoints out that Kraft had high confidence in Armstrong from Armstrong’s pilotingperformance during the near disaster on the Gemini VIII mission, and hisextensive engineering test pilot expertise, both of which are covered inthe book.

Hansen also treats several controversial topics that occurred during Armstrong’slife in a candid, objective way.   Examples are the coolness betweenArmstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the relationship between Armstrong and his firstwife Janet, Armstrong’s role in the decision as to who would be the firstout of the Lunar Excursion module after landing, Armstrong’s relationshipwith Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, and the way Armstrong coped withthe death of his young daughter.  There did not seen to be any effortto "pull any punches".   Indeed, as Hansen points out in his acknowledgements,although Armstrong read and commented on every chapter he did not once tryto change or influence Hansen’s analysis or interpretation. 

Perhaps Neil Armstrong can best be summed up in his own words spoken in aFebruary 2000 address to the National Press Club honoring the top 20 EngineeringAchievements of the Twentieth Century.  Armstrong said,  "I am,and ever will be, a white socks, pocket-protector nerdy engineer.  AndI take substantial pride in the accomplishments of my profession." (Chapter33, "To Engineer is Human".)  Maybe that’s why I have always admiredNeil Armstrong!

The "First Man" copy I read is from the Littleton Bemis Library.  Itwill be back there after Dec. 28th, but I want my own copy of this book. Maybe Santa Claus will bring it!