Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight

  • Jay Barbree
  • Thomas Dunne Books
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Frank Byrns
  • September 4, 2014

Jay Barbree provides a fresh perspective on the American hero, who did the impossible and touched the stars.

There has been no shortage of words written about Neil Armstrong since he became a global icon as the first man to walk on the moon in July of 1969. Yet thanks to his quiet, introspective personality and near-pathological avoidance of any sort of spotlight, very few of these were Armstrong’s own words. 

That same previous lack of access, more than anything, is what makes Jay Barbree’s new book, Neil Armstrong: A Life in Flight, such an important work. Barbee draws upon his nearly fifty-year relationship with Armstrong to craft a winning tribute to a true American hero that is bursting at the seams with the innermost thoughts of the man himself.

As the only man to cover all 166 American missions into space, Barbree had already developed a good working relationship with Armstrong. But, as Barbree recounts in the book, it was the death of his own infant daughter in the mid-‘60s that turned that relationship into something deeper. Armstrong opened up to Barbree about the death of his own three-year-old daughter from an inoperable brain tumor a few years prior, and that supportive gesture laid the groundwork for a lasting friendship.

Barbree is also an experienced pilot, and their common love of flying was another strong connection in his friendship with Armstrong. Much of the early part of the book is devoted to Armstrong’s time as a pilot, first for the Navy during the Korean Conflict, then as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Lengthy passages are devoted to the tales of Armstrong’s piloting expertise, often in the technical jargon of pilots: “With lagging elevators, trim tabs would boost them so he could climb. As quickly as his thumb could move the ‘coolie hat’ trim toggle atop his control stick he was rolling in trim to bring his jet’s nose up.”

The jargon speaks to the well-versed expertise of both men, but not necessarily to general readers. Barbree’s style is accessible enough; it’s easy to picture two old pilots on the back porch swapping war stories over a cold beverage or two, even though most of us won’t fully understand the words they are saying to one another. 

What is easy to understand, however, is just how skilled of a pilot Armstrong was. Barbree provides numerous testimonials from fellow astronauts and test pilots who name Armstrong as the best pilot in the space program. 

But Armstrong was more than just a pilot; he was also an accomplished scientist and engineer, and the work he and his fellow astronauts did in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission laid the groundwork for the ultimate success of the moon landing.

The bulk of the book deals with Armstrong’s two missions in space. He first launched as the commander of the ill-fated Gemini 8, and A Life of Flight provides an in-depth analysis from Armstrong and others of just where the mission went wrong and the skill Armstrong and Dave Scott showed in bringing the ship home safely. Barbree takes great care to show how the astronauts’ mathematical and engineering acumen was just as important as their piloting ability in a crisis.

Armstrong’s final mission, of course, was Apollo 11. Every detail of the moon landing has been covered in exhausting detail over the past 45 years, but Barbree manages to cover new ground given his unprecedented access to Armstrong. Barbree’s memory for detail is astounding, if not unexpected. He recalls the slightest details from every mission throughout the book, vividly coloring in the edges of pictures we’ve all seen a thousand times before.

By heaping praise, which often borders on hagiography, upon Armstrong, Barbree makes it clear that he thinks highly of his old friend. In places, his writing style is reminiscent of the old boys’ adventure novels of the 1950s and ‘60s, the kind read by millions of kids who would soon count Armstrong among their heroes. 

In an era of pseudo-celebrity tell-alls and trashy memoirs, it’s nice to remember the words of a genuine American hero, a man so humble that he honestly believed he was chosen to be the first human on the moon simply because it was his turn in the rotation.

And it’s nice to remind people of an era when the world was united, however briefly, behind a simple wish and a nearly impossible task: to touch the stars.

Frank Byrns lives in Maryland, where he writes about men who fly with capes rather than rocketships. His newest collection of short fiction, Adonis Morgan: Nobody Special, is scheduled for release later this summer from Pro Se Press. In a previous life, he sold books about astronauts as the manager of the National Air & Space Museum stores. Visit him online at www.frankbyrns.com.

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