Book Review: Neil Armstrong, A Life of Flight

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July 2, 2014 by Beth - I SNIFF BOOKS blog

neil armstrong book coverNeil Armstrong:  A Life of Flight written by Jay Barbree and published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press under Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 9781250040718. Page count:  350 for the narrative with a very generous amount of large, high-quality, black and white photos included throughout.

Publication date July 8, 2014 — just in time to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first lunar landing!

Neil Armstrong was a very private person. And to the best of my knowledge, unlike many of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts, Neil did not personally author anything on his spaceflight experiences. He is also noticeably absent from the In the Shadow of the Moon documentary from 2007.  So this biography penned by Jay Barbree is a real treat, and not just for the subject matter alone, but for Barbree’s credentials. Barbree was a pilot, a close friend of Neil’s, and has a long, outstanding career in spaceflight news reporting. Barbree writes with a true insider’s point of view.  The story is about Neil, of course, but it’s also about the achievements of other test pilots, astronauts, and cosmonauts who paved the way for Neil to be the first man to step on the moon.  Overall, Barbree gives the reader a true sense of being a participant in the activities, whether in training, up in space, in mission control, or with Neil’s friends and family.

Armstrong in LM after historic moonwalk. Image credit: NASA History Office and the NASA JSC Media Services Center (AS11-37-5528).

Armstrong in LM after historic moonwalk. Image credit: NASA History Office and the NASA JSC Media Services Center (AS11-37-5528).

This book isn’t just for fans of Neil Armstrong or fans of spaceflight.  It’s for anyone who wants an exhilarating and emotional reading experience.  It’s for armchair explorers who want to relive the nail-biting nervousness and excitement of all those “firsts” in early manned spaceflight. It’s for anyone who wants to cheer for the USA as NASA rallied to the challenge of Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of 1969.  NASA and its subcontractors accomplished the stuff dreams are made of — all of which culminated with three men leaving Earth in July 1969, traveling nearly 250,000 miles (one way!), and two of them placing their feet on the moon!!!  If that’s not exciting, then I don’t know what is!

I do have some quibbles.  And while my list seems long, my quibbles did not prevent me from enjoying the well-researched and action-packed narrative.

  1. John Glenn’s name is on the front cover as authoring the forward, but it is a half page at best.
  2. I noticed some grammatical errors, missing commas and periods, mainly in the first half of the book.
  3. Discrepancies:  (a) On page 147 Barbree says US spaceflight was grounded for 18 months following the Apollo 1 tragedy, yet on page 148 he says 21 months.  (b) On page 192 Korolev should be Korolyov.  (c)  page 320, stating that each Skylab crew spent up to nine months aboard isn’t, IMHO, the best way to state the duration of each Skylab mission.  The three crews spent 28 days, 59 days, and 84 days in space respectively.     
  4. I’m a huge spaceflight fan so I didn’t have any problems understanding the lingo used in the book. But a short glossary of airflight and spaceflight terms would have been helpful for others.
  5. And likewise, I wish Barbree explained the importance and purpose of the Gemini program and why Armstrong and Scott’s docking event in Gemini 8 was so significant.
  6. I definitely would have liked more information about Neil’s teaching career, other work, and personal life after he retired from NASA shortly after Apollo 11.  I know the subtitle is “A life in flight,” but Neil was more than just an astronaut although that is how we tend to define him. (Coincidentally the e-newsletter for Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine just ran a story on Neil’s teaching career here and be sure to visit the University of Cincinnati’s online archive commemorating Neil’s time on faculty).
  7. In regards to the Challenger tragedy and discovering what went wrong, this chapter seems to focus more on the author’s role, rather than Neil’s.
  8. The book would have had such a stronger and more powerful finish if the narrative stopped at the top of page 349.  I didn’t think the viral e-mail anecdote (which I had never even heard of) added any value at all to the biography.  I don’t even know why Barbree was motivated to include it since he alludes that the anecdote was an annoyance to Neil.

Neil Armstrong,  A Life of Flight will be published on July 8, 2014.  At the time of this post, you can pre-order the book or add it to your wish list!  Available at amazon and Barnes & Noble, and check your local independent book seller!

Disclosure:  I received a complimentary review copy from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press under Macmillan Publishers.  The opinions are my own.

This video is unaffiliated with the author or publisher.  Neil Armstrong speaking at the National Press Club on February 22, 2000.



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