Historian finally tells ‘first man’s’ story
How an Elmhurst High School grad became Neil Armstrong's official biographer
NOTE: We’re celebrating our 15th anniversary, and in doing so we’re reprinting this classic profile from our October 2005 issue. Maybe you’re gearing up for the Neil Armstrong movie coming out next month. What you might not know is that it’s based on a book written by an Elmhurst High School graduate.
Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon was a moment in history that etched itself forever into the minds of those who witnessed it. Anyone watching or listening on the night Armstrong pressed his boot into the lunar soil remembers where they were and what they were doing.
It is a safe bet that such is the case for Fort Wayne native James R. Hansen. On that July night in 1969, the 17-year-old with an affinity for golf and a growing passion for the past was enjoying the summer between his junior and senior years at Elmhurst High School. Hansen, today a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama, never knew how much the footsteps of a stranger on another planet would mean to his career 35 years later.
That changed three years ago when Armstrong signed off on a project he had never agreed to before — a definitive telling of his life story that Hansen would write and in which Armstrong, his family and many of the great names in air and space exploration would participate. The resulting book, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” arrives on store shelves Oct. 18. Published by Simon & Schuster, the movie rights to “First Man” have already been sold to Warner Brothers and Oscar-winning actor/director Clint Eastwood.
For Hansen, 53, “First Man” is the undisputed highlight of a nearly 25-year career chronicling the history of aerospace and spaceflight. He wonders where his career might go from here, but for the time being he is focused on a cross-country, 10-city book tour and a nationwide PR extravaganza that will see his book spotlighted across the media landscape. One stop on that tour will bring him back home to Fort Wayne on Oct. 27 for a book-signing at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Jefferson Pointe.
“In a way it’s kind of my own moon landing,” Hansen said during an interview in June at his home near the Auburn University campus. “It’s hard to top this. I don’t think I can top it.”
That someone has written a book about Armstrong’s life is not surprising. His name is often mentioned in the same breath as those of Charles Lindbergh and Christopher Columbus. That Armstrong helped with the book, giving Hansen more than 50 hours of in-depth interviews, is Hansen’s real triumph.
While those who know him personally hate the term, Armstrong, 75, has been something of a recluse since Apollo 11 returned to Earth after the first lunar landing. He resigned from NASA just two years later to teach aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. But the crush of acclaim that followed him home from the moon never faded away. To this day, Armstrong’s autograph is among the most highly sought after in the world, even though he no longer signs for collectors. This past May, Armstrong threatened legal action against his Lebanon, Ohio, barber after the stylist sold a clump of Armstrong’s hair to a collector for $3,000.
Armstrong’s career as an astronaut and his travails as an icon are well documented, but his life’s story is exactly the opposite. In the years after he walked on the moon, some of literature’s biggest names pursued Armstrong’s biography with no success.
“We find ourselves with this great contrast between Armstrong being the most famous astronaut to have lived and no one really knowing who he is,” said Robert Pearlman, editor of www.collectSpace.com, an Internet site dedicated to spaceflight history, news and memorabilia.
So how is it that a history professor who grew up in Fort Wayne, well known in scholarly circles but virtually unknown in popular publishing, landed the story of one of the world’s most famous explorers? He credits persistence, a unique point of view and a little prodding from his students.
Hansen graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) in 1974 and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from Ohio State University. While at IPFW, he considered law school. But two IPFW history professors, Ralph Violette and Gary Blumenshine, convinced Hansen to keep pursuing a lifelong love of history. The professors took a special interest in him and convinced him to pursue graduate school, even though jobs in teaching and scholarly research were scarce at the time.
“He was the best student we’ve ever had,” Blumenshine said. “We encouraged Jim not to be discouraged about the possibility of a career in academics and that he had a real chance of success.”
Hansen’s lifelong love of the past began not in the classroom, but on a golf course on the south side of Fort Wayne. In 1961, when Hansen was 9 years old, his father Irwin died, and his mother Grace had to take a job. Young Jim began spending summers at Fairview Golf Course, where he spent hoursgolfing with and talking to many veterans of World War II. His father served in the Army Signal Corps during the war, so he absorbed the stories of his golfing companions with eager fascination. As they walked from one hole to the next, he “interviewed” these men about the war, about their lives and about the Great Depression.
“I think I was just trying to find my father,” Hansen said. “I hadn’t been able to ask him these questions.”
Hansen’s mother later remarried, to Robert Montgomery, who owned and operated Montgomery Men’s Wear on Bluffton Road. Hansen said that Montgomery, an avid reader, was also a “tremendous” positive influence on his life.
From IPFW, Hansen began a four-year fellowship at Ohio State where he met yet another professor, June Fullmer, whose influence gave his career its most important nudge. Hansen took Fullmer’s course in the history of the scientific revolution, and from there, his interests turned more and more toward science history. In 1981, while still at Ohio State working on his doctorate, Hansen got the call that would change his life. NASA’s History Office called to offer him a job. NASA had gotten Hansen’s name through a colleague of Fullmer’s.
“It was one of those days you never forget,” Hansen said. “I was given an opportunity. I had a family. I had a wife. I had a baby. I had to give it a go and make the best of it.”
And make the best of it, he has. To call Hansen “accomplished” in his field is to excel in the art of understatement. His resume stretches for 18 pages, including dozens of books, articles, professional honors and awards. Including “First Man,” Hansen has authored or co-written nine books, one of which, “Spaceflight Revolution,” was nominated by NASA for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. “First Man” may not be far behind for a similar honor. Simon & Schuster freely compares the impact of “First Man” with that of 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner “Lindbergh,” which traced the life of Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic.
After 20 years of writing about the history of spaceflight and aerospace technology, Hansen wanted to write a biography of someone who had been an engineer or a pilot and who had crossed over between engineering and science. About a year before he first contacted Armstrong, he mentioned the idea of writing the moonwalker’s life story to a group of his graduate students who began encouraging him to pursue the idea.
“I was ready to do a biography,” Hansen said. “But obviously, I was challenged by the daunting prospect of getting him to do it. I had no real confidence. There was nothing about my approach that I thought would convince him.”
But there was something unique about Hansen’s credentials, if not his approach. Over his career, Hansen had written more about the technology and science advances brought about by air and space exploration, and not so much about the romance and lore.
He first wrote to Armstrong (after getting his address from a historian colleague that Hansen calls “kind of my Deep Throat”) in 2000 and got a generic response back from Armstrong saying that he was too busy to participate. A few months later, Hansen wrote again, sending a packet of his books and articles. One of the books caught Armstrong’s eye. It was about an aircraft designer with whom the ex-astronaut was familiar. Armstrong liked the content and tone of the book and agreed to sit down with Hansen to talk about writing his own biography.
Armstrong, Hansen and Armstrong’s wife Carol first met in the early fall of 2001, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and talked all afternoon about the direction the project might take. Hansen’s credentials were not the only thing that left Armstrong feeling good. They even talked about their shared Midwestern roots. Armstrong was an Ohioan who went to college in Indiana; Hansen was a Hoosier who went to college in Ohio.
Over the next few months, without any lawyers involved, Armstrong and Hansen worked out a contract that both signed in June 2002. Armstrong is personally receiving no money from the project, Hansen said. Armstrong’s share of book royalties will go toward the construction of a new engineering building at his alma mater, Purdue University.
In August 2002, Armstrong put his rare signature on Hansen’s golden ticket into the world of space history. It was a letter blessing Hansen’s research and encouraging others to help him wherever possible. “(Hansen) has a deep and abiding interest in the history of flight,” Armstrong wrote. “He has known many of the great creative individuals who made their mark in the aviation and space progress of the 20th century.”
Hansen met even more of those great individuals during his research for “First Man,” amassing a staggering archive of 125 interviews, including conversations with Armstrong’s Apollo crewmates and many other astronauts, men he flew with in the Korean War, his first wife, his prom date and even the man who taught Armstrong to fly as a teen-ager. But the information flow was not always one way.
In 1962, Armstrong’s parents appeared on the program “I’ve Got A Secret” on the day their son was chosen to be an astronaut. Armstrong had been unable to catch the live broadcast and never saw the program until Hansen showed it to him after getting a copy sent to him unexpectedly by a collector of television programs. During a trip to Armstrong’s Ohio home, 40 years after it aired, Hansen showed him the tape. The reserved Armstrong said little, but a great warm smile spread across his face.
Hansen and his wife, Peggy, a 1971 graduate of Elmhurst, have developed a close relationship with Armstrong and his second wife, Carol, during the writing of the book. They have spent enough time together that Hansen knows the moonwalker’s favorite flavor of ice cream (raspberry chocolate chip). Peggy Hansen and Carol Armstrong take walks and go to movies together during the Hansens’ trips to Ohio to work on the book. The couples traveled to California for a stay at Clint Eastwood’s golf resort, Tehama, where they discussed Eastwood’s plans for making a movie out of the book.
While they may be friends after years of working together on “First Man,” Hansen still holds Armstrong’s sensitivity in absolute regard. The only autograph Hansen has ever asked for is on the contract they signed three years ago. The men had their first photograph taken together this past July. He also is not allowing friendship with Armstrong to color his writing or dilute the book’s value to history. The book is an honest telling of the astronaut’s life story, (“warts and all,” Hansen adds) that will present Armstrong as a complicated, three-dimensional man thrust reluctantly into immortality.
“This is an authorized biography, and a lot of readers may suspect that means it will treat Neil with kid gloves,” Hansen said. “That’s not the case. Neil gave me complete freedom of interpretation and analysis. All he wanted to do was have input to make sure my facts were straight.”
Hansen took two years off from the Auburn University history department, which he once served as chair, to write the book and began teaching full-time again in fall 2004. In June, on summer break, he was back at work refining the final drafts of
“First Man,” working with Armstrong and a New York editor. Careful editing took the original 1,200 page manuscript (in which Armstrong was not born until page 80) to a finished book of 600-800 pages.
While Hansen has made the rare transition between academia and the world of popular culture, his focus remains where it has always been — on preserving history for generations to come.
“My final obligation is not to Neil … it’s not to any of the historical actors, it’s to posterity,” Hansen said. “It’s to try to tell the story as genuinely and as profoundly as I can for the benefit of readers who don’t know the history and for readers who are going to come across this book hundreds of years from now.”