Review

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong's Stellar American Journey

by Leon Wagener



"When the legend becomes truth, print the legend," John Ford opined
in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. However, it seems that the
legend of Neil Armstrong so completely eclipses the man --- or what
we think we know about the man --- that the only way to tell his
story effectively is to tell the truth of his life beyond the
legend.

That's the task before Leon Wagener, author of ONE GIANT LEAP, the
first Armstrong biography. Towards the end of the book, Wagener
provides a tiny but telling chunk of data about Armstrong. Shortly
after completing his first man-on-the-moon mission in Apollo 11,
Armstrong spends some time in Los Angeles. It's a natural choice
for him, but not in the way you might think. His goal is not to
cash in on his renown through movie stardom or to parlay his fame
into a vast palatial estate in the Hollywood Hills. Instead, he
works to complete his master's degree in engineering at the
University of Southern California, with an eye towards getting a
teaching job somewhere. Especially as seen from our
celebrity-obsessed, reality-show era, it's a different choice, and
perhaps a brave one, but certainly what you would call
modest.

The best parts of ONE GIANT LEAP are the small things. The moon
landing, of course, and Armstrong's time as an X-15 rocket pilot in
the High Desert of the True Brotherhood at Edwards Air Force Base
are covered extensively. But we know most of this, or at least
think that we do. Wagener's book is most valuable when it fills in
the gaps of our knowledge, when it provides a level of detail
outside the myth.

The myth, of course, is that of the steely-eyed missile man, the
patriotic pioneer into space. That myth starts in small-town Ohio,
with a young boy learning to fly at a rustic airstrip. But what
isn't so well known is the day that one of his classmates crashes a
plane just short of that landing strip and Armstrong rushing out to
the rescue, and the boy dying in his arms. Or Armstrong's desperate
flight in a battered F-9 over Korea after a bout with a
Russian-built MIG. Or even the near-disastrous ride aboard Gemini
8, where re-entry rockets had to be fired to stop a dangerous spin
in the capsule. These stories --- what we don't know about
Armstrong --- make up most of what's interesting, and different,
about ONE GIANT LEAP.

Wagener's biography is mostly a character study --- not of
Armstrong as a character, mind you, but of how Armstrong's personal
character led to his stunning success. Unfortunately, no small part
of Armstrong's character is being humble and modest --- not the
stuff of which great biographies are written. Wagener often cites
the Buzz Aldrin autobiography, in which Aldrin admits to depression
and alcoholism. Armstrong doesn't have these particular flaws in
his character, or any flaws to speak of. (The index entry for
Armstrong includes "athleticism of", "as Boy Scout", "as dutiful
husband", "faith and", "as loving father", and even "lack of
negative comments on.")

As a work of journalism, ONE GIANT LEAP is excellent, providing all
sorts of telling details about Armstrong and his times. But as a
biography, it falls well short of the mark. This actually says very
little about Wagener and his skill as a writer, but it speaks
volumes about who Neil Armstrong is. Wagener was apparently unable
to gain any cooperation from Armstrong in his effort, even so much
as an interview. What we hear about the astronaut comes from
childhood friends, Navy comrades and golfing buddies; we never hear
from him directly. Writing a biography of someone with a well-known
desire for privacy must be intensely frustrating, and Wagener
should be congratulated that his book is as good as it is.

Without a cooperative subject, ONE GIANT LEAP is content with
knocking down the auxiliary myths about Armstrong --- his rivalry
with Chuck Yeager and his post-Apollo reputation as a recluse. But
it does nothing to dent, or even touch, the central myth about
Armstrong or his heroic status as the first man on the moon. When
the legend becomes truth, print the legend.

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong's Stellar American Journey
by Leon Wagener

  • Publication Date: April 24, 2004
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Forge Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312873433
  • ISBN-13: 9780312873431