Book Review: Neil Armstrong – A Life of Flight by Jay Barbree

“Neil Armstrong – A Life of Flight” is a thoroughly enjoyable new biography about the first human to set foot on the Moon on NASA’s Apollo 11 mission written with gusto by Emmy winning NBC News space correspondent Jay Barbree.

Jay Barbee is a veteran NBC News reporter who has covered America’s manned space program from the start. And he has the distinction of being the only reporter to cover every single American manned space launch – all 166 from Alan Shepard in 1961 to STS-135 in 2011 – from his home base at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida allowing him to draw on a wealth of eyewitness experiences and inside contacts.

The book’s publication coincides with the 45th anniversary of the Flight of Apollo 11 on America’s first manned moon landing mission in July 1969 by the three man crew comprising Commander Neil Armstrong, fellow moonwalker and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module pilot Michael Collins.

It’s a meticulously researched book over five decades in the making and based on personal interviews, notes, meetings, remembrances, behind the scenes visits, launches and more between Neil Armstrong and his trusted friend Jay Barbree as well as hordes more officials and astronauts key to achieving NASA’s spaceflight goals.

He won that trust because the astronauts and others trusted that he would get the story right and never betray confidences, Jay told me in an interview about the book.

“This is really Neil’s book. And it’s as accurate as possible. I will never reveal something Neil told me in confidence. But there is far more in this book about Neil than he would have liked.”

Jay Barbree and Neil Armstrong enjoy dinner with America’s first in orbit, John Glenn, who is performing standup comedy out of the picture. Courtesy:  Jay Barbee. See  Jay Barbree and Neil Armstrong enjoy dinner with America’s first in orbit, John Glenn, who is performing standup comedy out of the picture. Courtesy:  Jay Barbree. See  p. XIX
Jay Barbree and Neil Armstrong enjoy dinner with America’s first in orbit, John Glenn, who is performing standup comedy out of the picture. Courtesy: Jay Barbree. See p. XIX

There is a six page list of acknowledgments and the forward is written by no less than John Glenn – the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.

Barbree is a master story teller who amply illustrates why NASA felt Armstrong was the best candidate to be 1st Man on the Moon based on his extraordinary intellect, piloting skills, and collected coolness and clear thinking under extraordinary pressure.

Armstrong also always shied away from publicity and bringing attention to himself, Barbree told me.

“Neil did not think he was any more important than anyone else. Neil wanted to do a book about a life of flight. But he wanted everyone else included.” And that’s exactly the format for the book – including Armstrong’s colleagues in words and pictures.

On July 21, NASA officially renamed a historic human spaceflight facility at the Kennedy Space Center in honor of Mission Commander Neil Armstrong – read my story here.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2014, NASA officials and Apollo astronauts have a group portrait taken in front of the refurbished Operations and Checkout Building, newly named for Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon. From left are NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Apollo astronauts Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, and Center Director Robert Cabana. The visit of the former astronauts was part of NASA's 45th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The building's high bay is being used to support the agency's new Orion spacecraft, which will lift off atop the Space Launch System rocket. Photo credit: NASA/Kevin O'Connell
At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2014, NASA officials and Apollo astronauts have a group portrait taken in front of the refurbished Operations and Checkout Building, newly named for Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon. From left are NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Apollo astronauts Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, and Center Director Robert Cabana. The visit of the former astronauts was part of NASA’s 45th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The building’s high bay is being used to support the agency’s new Orion spacecraft, which will lift off atop the Space Launch System rocket. Photo credit: NASA/Kevin O’Connell

Barbree details Armstrong’s lifetime of flight experiences that led to the ultimate Moon landing moment; starting with his early experiences as a Korean war combat pilot and bailing out of a crippled Panther F9F fighter plane, flying the X-15 to an altitude of 39 miles and the edge of space as a NASA test pilot, his selection as a member of the second group of astronauts on September 17, 1962, his maiden space mission on Gemini 8 which suddenly went out of control and threatened the crews lives, and finally the landing on the Sea of Tranquility with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining.

“Neil Armstrong – A Life of Flight” is a book for anyone interested in learning the nitty gritty inside details starting from the founding of America’s space effort, the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the earlier Mercury and Gemini manned programs, the terrible tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire and death of three brave Americans – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – and how all this swirl lead up to America’s determined and miraculous effort recounting how we got to the Moon. Go elsewhere for gossip.

This hefty 350 page volume is absolutely chock full of details including copious quotes on virtually every page. So much so that Barbree brings the along reader for what seems like a firsthand account. It’s as though he were a fly in the room listening in on history being made and transcribing it second by second or as an actual crew member riding along himself and reporting ultimately from aboard Apollo 11 and the Moon’s desolate surface.

On the Lunar Surface – Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA
On the Lunar Surface – Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Barbree does this by putting into context the full meaning and breadth of what’s happening on a moment by moment basis. Giving you the reader a complete understanding of what, why and how these history making events transpired as they did.

I found his background information endlessly illuminating and informative ! – precisely because it’s not merely a transcription of dialogue.

Concerning the mild controversy regarding Armstrong’s actual first words spoken from the lunar surface, here’s excerpts from how Jay tells the story on p. 263:

“He had thought about one statement he judged had meaning and fit the historic occasion …. Neil had not made up his mind … he was undecided until he was faced with the moment.

Armstrong then lifted his left boot .. and set it down in moon dust.

“That’s one small step for man,” Neil said with a momentary pause. “One giant leap for mankind.”

What most didn’t know was that Neil had meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man,” and that set off an argument for years to come. Had a beep in transmission wiped it from our ears or had Neil nervously skipped the word?

Knowing Neil’s struggles with public speaking, I believe the latter, and with all the excitement … I’ve never been convinced Neil knew himself for sure,” Barbree wrote.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history 45 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history 45 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA

Towards the books conclusion, he writes of Armstrong; “No greater man walked among us. No better man left us informed answers. Neil taught us how to take care of our Earth-Moon system.”

I also enjoyed towards the end of the book where Jay includes Neil’s disappointment that we haven’t ventured beyond Earth orbit in over 4 decades and includes Neil’s personal testimony to Congress so we learn the detail of Armstrong thoughts – in his own words.

“I am persuaded that a return to the moon would be the most productive path to expanding the human presence in the solar system.”

Jay also pinpoints why we haven’t returned to the Moon; “lack of vision for the future” by Congress and Presidents “have kept astronauts locked in Earth orbit.”

It’s been my privilege to get to know Jay during my own space reporting from the press site at the Kennedy Space Center and interview him about his magnificent new book.

Read Jay Barbree’s new 8 part series of 45th anniversary Apollo 11 stories at NBC News here:

Morning on the Moon: Apollo 11 Showed How Far We Could Go

Armstrong passed away unexpectedly at age 82 on August 25, 2012 due to complications from heart bypass surgery. Read my prior tribute articles: here and here

Despite Armstrong’s premature passing, Barbree told me he had completed all the interviews.

“There isn’t anything that comes to mind about Neil Armstrong that I didn’t get to ask him,” Barbree told me.

Read my 45th Apollo 11 anniversary articles here:

Apollo 11 Splashdown 45 Years Ago on July 24, 1969 Concludes 1st Moon Landing Mission – Gallery

Historic Human Spaceflight Facility at Kennedy Renamed in Honor of Neil Armstrong – 1st Man on the Moon


Apollo 11 Moon Landing 45 Years Ago on July 20, 1969: Relive the Moment! – With an Image Gallery and Watch the Restored EVA Here

Cygnus Commercial Resupply Ship ‘Janice Voss’ Berths to Space Station on 45th Apollo 11 Anniversary

Read my story about the deep sea recovery of the Apollo 11 first stage F-1 engines in 2013 – here.

Jay Barbree is on a book signing tour and you might be lucky to catch him at an event like a colleague of mine did at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum recently. See photo below.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Jay Barbree at “Neil Armstrong” book signing tour at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Credit: Mark Usciak
Jay Barbree at “Neil Armstrong” book signing tour at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Credit: Mark Usciak

Neil Armstrong’s Name Now Graces A NASA Research Center In California

Neil Armstrong — the first man on the moon, who died in 2012 — will now be the namesake of one of NASA’s research centers. A new law designated the Armstrong Flight Research Center took effect March 1, replacing the old name since 1976, the Dryden Flight Research Center.

Former NASA deputy administrator Hugh L. Dryden will still see his name in the area, however, as the center’s 12,000-square-mile (31,000-square-kilometer) Western Aeronautical Test Range is now called Dryden Aeronautical Test Range.

“I cannot think of a more appropriate way to honor these two leaders who broadened our understanding of aeronautics and space exploration,” stated NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

“Both Dryden and Armstrong are pioneers whose contributions to NASA and our nation still resonate today. Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Dryden’s expertise at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and then at NASA established America’s leadership in aerospace, and his vision paved the way for Armstrong to take those first steps.”

NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong earlier in his career, when he flew X-15s at the NACA High-Speed Flight Station (now called the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center). Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong earlier in his career, when he flew X-15s at the NACA High-Speed Flight Station (now called the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center). Credit: NASA

At the center, Armstrong is probably best remembered for his flights in the X-15, a rocket-powered aircraft that set several altitude and speed records in the 1960s. At what was then the NACA High-Speed Flight Station, he flew seven times in that particular experimental aircraft, along with 41 other kinds of aircraft, between 1955 and 1962. Armstrong was also involved with development of a predecessor to a lunar landing training vehicle used in the Apollo missions (which almost killed Armstrong in a practice run for Apollo 11).

The astronaut flew two space flights. On Gemini 8 in 1966, he drew praise for stopping a rapid spin on the spacecraft when a thruster became stuck open. He was then tapped to command Apollo 11, making a successful landing on the moon in 1969 on the last dregs of fuel his spacecraft had available.

Neil Armstrong at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Saturn V Exhibit (Control Room) for the 30th Anniversary of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1999. Credit: John Salsbury
Neil Armstrong at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Saturn V Exhibit (Control Room) for the 30th Anniversary of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1999. Credit: John Salsbury

Armstrong’s connection with the research center continued after he left the astronaut corps, when he was NASA’s deputy associate administrator for aeronautics. In this capacity, NASA wrote, he was “overseeing aeronautical research programs being conducted at the center, particularly its pioneering work on developing digital electronic flight control systems.”

Armstrong, who his family called a “reluctant American hero”, died Aug. 25, 2012 of complications after cardiovascular surgery. You can read more about Armstrong’s exploits at NACA in this fact sheet, and more about Dryden here.

The center is located on California’s Edwards Air Force Base. Renaming was directed in legislation authored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California’s 22nd district (and also the house majority whip), NASA stated. After the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013 and the Senate in January, President Barack Obama signed the name into law Jan. 16. A renaming ceremony is expected in the spring.

Armstrong is the second astronaut to have a center named after him. The Lewis Research Center in Cleveland was renamed Glenn Research Center after Sen. John Glenn (D) in 1999. Glenn flew twice in space. In 1962,  Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. He then returned to space in 1998 at the age of 77, becoming the oldest person to fly in space to date.

The Epitome of Cool: Neil Armstrong and David Scott, 1966

So, you’ve just endured a harrowing experience where your orbiting spacecraft has gone wildly out of control. You somehow — while undergoing the incredible, vertigo-inducing G-forces of your spinning spacecraft — figure out a plan, undock your spacecraft from another spacecraft and abort your original mission.

Six and a half orbits and ten hours and 44 minutes after you’ve thunderously launched into space, you violently re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in a pitching ocean. Obviously, you have to throw up, and so does your crewmate. But there’s just one air sickness bag.

But by the time the rescue crew has arrived you’ve donned your sunglasses and look as cool as a cucumber.

That’s Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott’s experience during the Gemini 8 mission.

The epitome of cool.

How Do Astronauts on the Space Station Stay in Touch with Earth?

Gemini 8 was in trouble. The spacecraft was spinning rapidly, the astronauts were fighting to stay conscious, and worst of all — they were out of the reach of NASA’s Mission Control.

The astronauts eventually did make contact during that 1966 mission, and splashed down safely. Still, the incident illustrated a weakness of having scattered ground stations staying in touch with orbiting spacecraft. NASA had a large network of stations, including ships and remote satellite dishes, but there were large gaps in coverage.

Today, NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) have virtually 100% communications contact with orbiting astronauts and cosmonauts in the International Space Station, including video. That’s due to a network of satellites called the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system. The first of these satellites launched 30 years ago today (April 5) in 1983.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket streaks away from Space Launch Complex 41 into the night sky over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-K, TDRS-K, to orbit. Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket streaks away from Space Launch Complex 41 into the night sky over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-K, TDRS-K, to orbit. Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson

TDRS includes seven operational satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit (essentially, in an orbit that keeps them above a fixed location on Earth.) The satellites are designed to serve spacecraft that are orbiting in low Earth orbit, above 45 miles (73 kilometers) in altitude. They’re spaced out to make sure that customers receive coverage throughout the orbit. Operations on the ground consist of two ground terminals located near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Launching these satellites took years. Although the first satellite was deployed successfully, the second one was destroyed in the Challenger shuttle explosion of 1986. The rest of the first generation of TDRS satellites went into space between 1988 and 1995. Three more advanced satellites then launched between 2000 and 2002.

This means the TDRS fleet is getting pretty old, but luckily, there are fresh replacements on the way. TDRS-K launched in January and is still being tested before assuming operational status. TDRS-L will launch in 2014, and TDRS-M in 2015.