To the Moon and Back with Neil Armstrong’s Biographer
Dr. James R. Hansen is a celebrated author and historian, specialising in aerospace and NASA. He is a Professor of History at Auburn University in Alabama. His book ‘First Man’ published in 2005, chronicles in great detail the life of Neil Armstrong, and was a key text for Damien Chazelle’s new film about Armstrong’s historical lunar landing of 1969.
Nigel McEnaney spoke to Dr. Hansen about his book ‘First Man’, the film First Man, and that eponymous first man who inspired it all.
What made you want to write a biography about Neil Armstrong?
My previous books were, in essence, institutional histories or the histories of research laboratories. I had done a lot of interviews for the books I had done for NASA, and was always interested in the people and the creative process. I had gotten to the point where I wanted to try my hand at a biography and, since I had written a lot about the space program, I decided to write about the life of an astronaut.
By the late 1990s, many of the early American astronauts had already published their autobiographies or had worked with authors to do their biographies. But there was nothing about Neil Armstrong.
With someone so famous, not just in space history but human history, his biography would surely be no small task?
A book about Neil Armstrong could never be a straightforward biography. It would have so many other elements to it, socially and culturally, in terms of the meaning that society projected on to him.
About the time I started writing my book, some authors tried to write biographies completely on their own, without any help or insight from Neil. The books turned out very poorly because, without access to Neil, there was no way to check the accuracy of all the stories that had been told about him over the years, many of which were fabricated by people who just wanted to be part of his story.
How did you get that access to Armstrong? How did you approach him?
I knew from talking to people, that Armstrong was a very private man. One of my NASA friends somehow knew the post office box number where Neil got his mail, in a little town north of Cincinnati, Ohio, named Lebanon, where Neil had moved his family in the 1970s after retiring from NASA and taking a job as a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. So I wrote him a letter. A few weeks later I got a very nice letter back from him. It was basically a polite “not at this time.”
My students at Auburn University encouraged me not to give up but, I told them, he’s not the kind of guy you keep bugging. So, what to do? I knew his birthday was coming around, on August 5, so I sent him a few of my books, just as a gift. I thought that might open the door a little bit, but if not it'll just be neat to know that Neil Armstrong has some of my books. A month or so after, Neil wrote me back and thanked me, and said that he had read one of the books cover to cover, and browsed the others. He basically just said, "Let's keep talking." That was a good sign. It took another two years after that before I got a green light from him because, as quick as Neil could make decisions in the cockpit of an airplane or a spacecraft, he was very deliberate about almost everything else in his life.
The key moment came when he invited me up to Cincinnati to meet him, and I spent the afternoon at his home talking to him and his second wife, Carol. I think Carol (and I later came to know this was true) had been encouraging him to allow someone to do his biography. He was 72 by the time I got the agreement from him. I think my visit with him at his home was crucial. He could tell from my books that, even though I wasn't an engineer, I was going to take the technology seriously.
I think he also liked the fact I had an academic connection. He had been an academic as well, at the University of Cincinnati, so I think that gave me an advantage. I wasn't just a writer out to write a book.
What surprised you along the way, through all the research and discussions with Neil?
There are a lot of stories out there about Neil that have been accepted as true, but that aren't true at all. Once Neil became famous, people he grew up with, people who lived in the small towns of Ohio where he was raised, and others, told stories about him that were greatly exaggerated. Some stories were complete fictions. I learned early on that there were a couple of major stories about him that had been repeated everywhere but just weren't true. That really opened my eyes. It made me realise that I had to question everything I was told about Neil.
Mostly, I went to Neil himself. He knew all about these exaggerated stories and fictions, but he had not tried to expose or correct them. There was one story in particular, told by a man who lived near where Neil grew up in the town of Wapakoneta. This man,named Jacob Zint, for years told this whopper of a story that Neil and he had grown very close, talking about the moon and the stars. Zint had built a little astronomical observatory on the top floor of his house and said that, as a boy, Neil would come over often to look through the telescope. Zint became sort of a hometown hero: “the man who first showed Neil the Moon and the stars!” and his story was told in every children's book about Neil. The story was so believable, because this is the boy who became the astronaut who went to the Moon.
During one of my early interviews I asked Neil about these stories. He looked down at his shoes, looked back up at me, and said, "They're not true."
"What do you mean not true?” I asked, “I've got newspaper clippings about Jacob Zint. After you came back from the Moon, your town had a parade for you, and Mr. Zint was in the parade in an open top convertible, because he was recognised as being so important to your story.”
"It didn't happen.” Neil said, “It wasn't true. I went to his house once with the Boy Scout troop. He showed us the telescope. He wouldn't even let us look through it. I never saw him again."
If I had not specifically asked about Jacob Zint, Neil would never have brought it up. There were so many lies and false stories told by people, because they wanted to be part of the bigger story. That was part of the iconography that I needed to study. That is what was surprising, that there was such fabrication, combined with the fact that Neil never tried to correct these fictions himself. Most people would have been bugged by that.
The book is a very detailed, thorough look at his life. How was the reaction and how do you feel about it?
I was taking on a very special responsibility. Over the years I have come to feel that responsibility more and more, especially after Neil died in 2012. I knew at the time that this was going to be the one and only chance to do a biography with access not only to Neil, which was primary, but to all the other Apollo astronauts, their family members, and all the NASA folks who helped carry out the Moon landing. A reader, say, in Louisville, Kentucky, may not want so much detail about Neil's naval career and his time in the Korean War when he was a combat pilot for the Navy, but the record needs to have it there. If Christopher Columbus had been accompanied by a biographer who was there at the time and could record everything about Columbus’s life and his three voyages to the New World, what details of Columbus would we not want to know now?
I was writing Neil’s biography not just for today's audience, but for many generations. If people think something in the book is too detailed, then they can skip it. Neil was first and foremost an engineer. That's why he selected me in the first place. If you're writing about the life of an engineer and you don't take what he's thinking about in his job seriously, then you've missed out on such an essential part of the man’s life. I felt the book needed a careful analysis of Neil’s youth. For me, the child is the father to the man and a biographer needs to understand the child, the family background, parents, siblings, the community he grew up in, his schooling. If you don't understand what made the boy, you don’t really fathom how and why he became the adult that he did.
Your book is now a major film and a likely Oscar contender. How did the film come about? How involved have you been?
Hollywood became interested in the potential of my book as a movie even before I had gotten very deep into my writing. Originally, it was with director Clint Eastwood and Warner Bros. Clint invited Neil and his wife, and me and my wife, out to his private golf club up in the hills above Pebble Beach, California. We played a round of golf and had dinner, but since I was just starting the book there wasn’t much that could be said about what any movie would be. Of course, Neil never wanted to be part of any movie deal, but neither did he try to stop it.
Eastwood, for whatever reason, decided not to do it and so Warner Brothers let it go. Within a year or so, in 2007, Universal Pictures came around and optioned my book. Again, Neil was not actively involved in the movie deal, but he did agree to meet producers. I think Neil had developed enough trust in me by that point that he was okay with my being involved in such a project.
Damien Chazelle, coming off the back of La La Land, how did you feel when you heard he would be directing?
I couldn’t be happier that it waited on him [Chazelle] to take on the project. He’s only 33 years old and is taking such a fresh view at the history of the early space age. Most of the folks who made the film and who are acting in the film were not even alive when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. I think that is a great thing for the movie. Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer, and actor Ryan Gosling, read everything they could get their hands on about NASA and the Moon landing program. My book was fundamental about Neil but there is a lot of other literature on NASA and Apollo that needed to be researched. I read every draft of Josh Singer’s screenplay - there were over 20 of them - and I provided hundreds of pages of comments on those scripts. Universal also made me a co-producer of the film, and I was on the set for the shooting of the movie almost every day. So I feel I am very much a part of the film’s creation.
I am very proud of the film. I don’t think any film about space exploration has ever reached out to so many experts and consultants, because Damien [Chazelle] and the rest of us all wanted to make the movie as accurate as possible, while still having a great drama and cinematic experience. It is definitely all of that!
With the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing in July next year, what’s next for you?
I will be very busy for the next several months with the movie. At the same time, a new edition of my book is coming out. I am especially excited that so many foreign countries are translating and publishing ‘First Man’, into French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Czech, Greek, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malay, even Sinhala. Next spring, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 itself in July 2019, I am publishing a new book entitled ‘Sincerely, Neil A. Armstrong: Letters from the First Man on the Moon’ which collects and annotates over 200 letters that Neil wrote to people between 1969 and his death in 2012.
I am also involved in a National Geographic project to produce a full-length documentary of Neil Armstrong’s life, to be aired during the Apollo 11 anniversary. Finally, I am involved in the creation of a reality TV series coming out Summer 2019, involving the hunt for lost and stolen Moon rocks. Since the end of the Moon landings in December 1972, hundreds of Moon rocks brought back to earth by the Apollo astronauts have gone missing.
If there was one thing about Neil Armstrong you would like people to know, what would it be?
Neil as a boy growing up was all about airplanes. He went to university to study aeronautical engineering and to become an aircraft designer. His transition to space and to becoming an astronaut was purely a by-product of the technological developments of his time, from propeller-driven aircraft, to jets, to rockets. The timing of his life was such that he evolved as the technology of flight itself evolved. But to the end of his life he’d much rather talk about airplanes than spacecraft.
First Man (2018)
[Words by Nigel McEnaney]
On the heels of their six-time Academy Award-winning smash, La La Land, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling reteam for First Man, the riveting story of NASA's mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969.
A visceral, first-person account, based on the book by James R. Hansen, the movie will explore the sacrifices and the cost - on Armstrong and on the nation - of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
First Man plays on Curzon screens from Friday 12 October