"First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" by James R. Hansen, Prologue–Part Two

June 26, 2018
This biography explores the life and legacy of the first astronaut to walk on the moon.

Here are links to our lists for the biography: Prologue–Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight
On a big motor cruiser owned by North American Aviation, builder of the Apollo command module, Janet Armstrong, the wife of Apollo ll’s commander, and her two boys, twelve-year-old Rick and six-year-old Mark, stood nervously awaiting the launch.
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.
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.
Nowhere on the globe was the excitement as palpable as it was throughout the United States.
CBS’s sixty-one-year-old commentator Heywood Hale Broun, best known for his irreverent sports journalism, experienced the liftoff with several thousand people along Cocoa Beach, some fifteen miles south of the launchpad.
de facto
Reverend Ralph Abernathy, successor to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and de facto leader of the American civil rights movement, marched with four mules and about 150 members of the Poor People’s Campaign for Hunger as close as they were allowed to get to the sprawling spaceport.
Over the years since she had given her life to Jesus Christ as a young teenager, she had uttered many fervent prayers, “but never was there a prayer like this one. I had actually heard the announcement with my own ears that our son had been chosen to be on the coming Moon landing team!”
To facilitate their coverage of Apollo 11 from Wapakoneta, the three major TV networks erected a shared eighty-five-foot-high transmission tower in the driveway of the Armstrong house.
Among a few locals, the media spotlight inspired a different kind of civic embellishment. Some told exaggerated stories, even outright lies, about their special connection to the astronaut.
We all had explicit faith in NASA and our boys, and I had a feeling that our Heavenly Father was the Supreme Commander over all....
Legend traced the name to a heroic progenitor by the name of Fairbairn.
The great Scottish writer and onetime Borderlands resident Sir Walter Scott wrote four centuries later in his poem “Lay of the Minstrel” of the flaming arrows emblematic of endemic clan feuds: “Ye need no go to Liddisdale, for when they see the blazing bale, Elliots and Armstrongs never fail.”
Decades’ worth of flagrant expansion by the Armstrongs into what had come to be known as “the Debatable Land” eventually forced the royal hand, as did their purported crimes of burning down fifty-two Scottish churches.
Under the pretext of a hunting expedition, James V marched his forces southward in search of Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, known locally as “Black Jock.”
Stephen Armstrong (Generation No. 7) received his grandfather Van Nuys’s legacy of roughly two hundred dollars in cash and goods when he turned twenty-one in 1846.
The previous school year, Viola had kept a “commonplace book” filled with “Memory Gems,” such as D. L. Moody’s adage, “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.”
From Philip Freneau’s romantic elegy “The House of the Night,” she learned “what death really is and should be.”
The doctor did not permit her to attend her father-in-law Willis’s funeral, but with Stephen at home she arranged for Neil to be baptized by Reverend Burkett, the minister who had married them, in a “ hallowed place, truly sacred,” the same living room where the couple’s marriage and Neil’s birth had taken place.
Staging a photo with his birthday-present puppy dog, Tippy, Viola had to exhort a reluctant Neil, “Stand up there like a man!”
Neil’s unusual combination of coolness, restraint, and honesty could be read as inscrutable.
But a person’s being “good” did not preclude resolution to the point of stubbornness.
On the surface, the relationship appeared solid. But underneath, the conjugal union seems to have run an all-too-typical course, from loving passion to emotional distance.
One divisive issue was religion and the accompanying moral trappings of temperance, in drink and language.
One divisive issue was religion and the accompanying moral trappings of temperance, in drink and language.
Though uncertain of the principles of deism, Butchart praised Neil as a man of impeccable character whom he would and, during their flying together, did trust with his life.
According to Dean, whenever his mother spoke about religion, Neil would listen politely and in silence, offering some terse comment only if pressed.
Like many journalists covering the space program, CBS’s Walter Cronkite also experienced Neil’s nonconfrontational—some have even said evasive—style.
non sequitur
According to Neil’s brother Dean, Cronkite on another occasion asked Neil if he felt closer to God when he stood on the Moon’s surface, to which Neil gave a totally ridiculous non sequitur: “You know, Walter, sometimes a man just wants a good cigar.”
In the view of the Original Seven, if the famous ephemeral quality that came to be known as “The Right Stuff” existed at all, it derived socially from their common upbringing.
In their Wolf Patrol, Neil, Bud, and Kotcho entered into one of those indelible adolescent friendships that thrived on good-natured rivalry.
Neil had made a steam turbine out of scraps of wood and a little alcohol lamp that heated the little boiler. Every time he lit that lamp, his turbine would turn with such speed and eloquence.
Accompanying Armstrong’s senior class picture in the Blume High School yearbook for 1946-47 was the telling epigram, “He thinks, he acts, tis done.”
In the quietly congenial world of the series of midwestern towns that amounted to the truest Tranquility Base that he would ever know, Armstrong prepared to meet the world.
The Moon, so Zint said, “seemed to be Neil’s main interest. He would dote on it, ”as well as expressing “a particular interest” in “the possibility of life on other planets....We hashed it over and concluded there was no life on the Moon, but there probably was on Mars.”
“To the best of my recollection,” Armstrong admits today with reluctance and typical reserve, so as not to overly impugn the reputation of Wapakoneta’s highly publicized amateur astronomer, “I was only at Jake Zint’s observatory the one time. As for looking through Zint’s telescope and having private conversations with Zint about the Moon and the universe, they never happened....Mr. Zint’s story grew after I became well known,” Neil says.
Many accounts of Armstrong’s boyhood relate that Neil read about the Wrights as a first grader. That seems to be just another edifying myth.
According to a volunteer group in Warren, Ohio, that has worked through the early 2000s to turn the Warren airport site into a historical exhibit, the date of Neil’s inaugural flight was July 26, 1936.
The machine that took them up was a high-wing monoplane, the Ford Trimotor, nicknamed the “Tin Goose” for its skin of corrugated aluminum.
Nonetheless, the incident serves as an allegory for his life—as an engineer, test pilot, and astronaut— presaging his strong preference for solitary challenges that task the mind more than the body...
While Armstrong’s friends drew biplanes with fixed landing gear, Neil drew low-wing monoplanes with retractable tricycle landing gear.
But the advantage was theoretical, as only ever more hours in the air would satiate his zest.
As Armstrong entered college, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor, along with the newly established U.S. Air Force, moved ahead ambitiously to construct new research facilities devoted to transonics, supersonics, and hypersonics (the speed regime, at around Mach 5, where the effects of aerodynamic heating became pronounced).
Armstrong’s time in the aeronautical engineering program at Purdue University spanned—including a three-year stint in the military—from September 1947 to January 1955.
Armstrong did not choose to pursue the new Theoretical Aeronautics option that premiered at Purdue in the fall of 1954, but he did, in his final semester of coursework, take its very challenging course on vector analysis.
He also had intermittent weekend responsibilities as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve, carpooling with his Purdue navy buddies to the Naval Air Station in Glenview, Illinois, north of Chicago, to fly F9F-6 jets.

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