It may be the most recognized quote in the world not found in the Bible: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." If you heard it broadcast live, accompanied by a fuzzy black-and-white TV image of a figure in a bulky white space suit stepping onto the rocky lunar plain, you remember the moment as freshly as this morning's coffee. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong is the story of how Armstrong got to that first step onto the Moon's surface, and what has happened since. This is the first authorized biography of a hero who has been understandably protective of his privacy. As such, former NASA historian James R. Hansen was given access to personal letters, records, journals and private interviews previously unavailable to would-be biographers. The result is a work that is thoroughly researched, dispelling many current myths about Armstrong and the space program perpetuated by journalists, film, television and (notoriously) the Internet.
First Man is immense, and incredibly detailed. Unfortunately, some of this detail slows down the early chapters, but once Armstrong begins his days as a test pilot and eventual astronaut, the narrative picks up, both in interest and speed. During these later chapters, Hansen's attention to detail serves the story well, relaying the difficulty and danger inherent in the Apollo program. Along with this comes an understanding of Neil Armstrong himself. Hansen does not retreat from exposing Armstrong's difficulty in building strong personal relationships and his muted emotional personality. Little if anything could shake Armstrong or if it did, he hid it from even himself. In space, this aided him beyond measure; in life, it brought him pain.
Armstrong's life after the landing is as fascinating as the event itself. He fervently argued the importance of exploration and discovery, particularly in their ability to make mankind look beyond the everyday and see the possibilities of human ingenuity. Yet after the landing, he watched the public lose interest in exploring, valuing him for his unique celebrity just as they devalued the very work that made him one.