Books

Jay Barbree
Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight

From his early adolescence, Neil Armstrong experienced a recurring dream: he was suspended in midair, floating thousands of metres above the Earth. He never imagined he would fall. Throughout his flying career, from his first forays as a fighter pilot in Korea in 1951, until he was appointed commander of Apollo 11 in 1968, Armstrong was renowned for his calmness under pressure, exhaustive preparation and exceptionally quick processing skills. 

On July 21, 1969, he had the privilege to be the first person to walk on the moon. Few individuals have had the eyes of the world upon them as Armstrong did that day. For a man whose natural inclination was to shun the limelight, he carried the burden of his fame until his death in 2012.

NBC journalist Jay Barbree covered every NASA space flight and was a close friend of Armstrong’s from the early 1960s. Although not the first biographer of Armstrong, Barbree claims the most intimate access to his subject. As he explains somewhat worryingly in his introduction: “at times I will put myself in Neil’s shoes to recreate his thoughts just as he conveyed them to me”. The result is a fly-on-the-wall account of Armstrong’s “life in flight”, although half of the biography is devoted to the Apollo 11 mission. 

Conversational in tone, the book reads like a film script. The narrative races along, with detailed accounts of rocket launches, spacecraft dockings, re-entries and, of course, landing on the “magnificent desolation” of the moon’s surface. Cleverly milking NASA’s recordings of the Apollo 11 mission and splicing the story with his personal archive of emails and interviews with Armstrong, Barbree manages to relive the experience that has been relived so many times before. It’s a heroic portrait of both Armstrong and the USA space program that occasionally borders on hagiography. His final verdict on Armstrong: “No greater man walked among us.” 

One aspect of Armstrong’s flights conveyed unforgettably is the awe he felt before the vastness of space. Armstrong saw the Earth rising above the lunar surface and he turned outwards to the blackness and imagined leaving it behind him. Like others who saw the planet from space, Armstrong was able to see the Earth as those who inhabit it seem incapable of seeing it: a planet with a common purpose and destiny.  WW

Macmillan, 384pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Jay Barbree, Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight". Subscribe here.

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