HISTORIAN'S CORNER - January, 2006

BY: Matt Grogan

In response to my last article on the Prime program, I received a letter from Bill Warren letting me know that he worked on the program in Baltimore and was the Group Engineer for the installation and arrangement of all the equipment on PRIME.  Bill later moved to Denver where he was a Group Engineer 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 well as other materials.  Thanks, Dabby.

I thought I would depart from my usual format of writing about a Lockheed Martin program to tell you about a recently published book I have just finished reading that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.  It’s titled, "First Man", by James R. Hansen, and is the authorized biography of Neil A. Armstrong, the Commander of Apollo 11, and the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.  Armstrong has been virtually silent about his experiences in commanding the Apollo 11 mission almost 36 years ago, and his life before and after that historic event.  Several of the other astronauts have published autobiographies and have become national figures.  For example, Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 11 and the second man on the moon, has appeared numerous times on various TV shows, has published six 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 University of Cincinnati after retiring from NASA in 1971, shunned the public spotlight except for occasional press conferences, and granted almost no interviews until 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 Auburn University.  I found Hansen’s direct and penetrating insight into Neil Armstrong fascinating, just as the dust cover promised.   As one example, Hansen’s description of the "heated discussion" between Armstrong and Chris Kraft, the Houston Mission Control Director, about the lunar landing Mission Rules the month before the launch of Apollo 11 was particularly interesting to me.  I worked in Kraft’s Directorate at the time as a Manned Spacecraft Center Civil servant and know how "forceful" he could be.  Hansen interviewed Kraft and describes Kraft’s concern that Armstrong would proceed with a landing on the Moon in spite of certain Mission Rules.  This confrontation between the normally unflappable pilot-in-command and the strong-willed boss of the Mission Control came across in a very credible fashion.  The book also points out that Kraft had high confidence in Armstrong from Armstrong’s piloting performance during the near disaster on the Gemini VIII mission, and his extensive engineering test pilot expertise, both of which are covered in the book.

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

Perhaps Neil Armstrong can best be summed up in his own words spoken in a February 2000 address to the National Press Club honoring the top 20 Engineering Achievements of the Twentieth Century.  Armstrong said,  "I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket-protector nerdy engineer.  And I take substantial pride in the accomplishments of my profession." (Chapter 33, "To Engineer is Human".)  Maybe that’s why I have always admired Neil Armstrong!

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