Sunday, 30 December 2007

One Giant Leap, Leon Wagener

An event as momentous as the first human being to land on the Moon is sure to attract a lot of commentary, and certainly Neil Armstrong has been the subject of a number of books. One Giant Leap is subtitled "Neil Armstrong's Stellar American Journey"... And right there you have the first indication that this is not going to be one of the better books about him. Armstrong, of course, did not make a "stellar" journey - he stayed entirely within the Solar System, travelled no more than a quarter of a million miles from Earth, in fact. Okay, perhaps that's poetic licence. But the cover also depicts a figure in a spacesuit on the Moon. There are no photographs of Armstrong on the Moon. Aldrin didn't take any. So that can't be Armstrong on the cover.

Not good omens, and I've not even opened the cover. Once I have done, it comes as no surprise to learn that Wagener has little or nothing to say about Armstrong and Apollo 11 that has not been said elsewhere. And more accurately. He perpetuates, for example, the myth that Buzz Aldrin didn't take any photos of Armstrong because he was upset at not being first to leave the LM. Not to mention misnaming Alexei Leonov as Alexei Leonor (isn't that a fabric conditioner?). Armstrong is described throughout in language not unlike "the noble-countenanced astronaut", even if those exact words are not used. Wagener claims that Armstrong's childhood dream had been to land on the Moon, and that he was chosen as the first man to walk on the Moon by NASA because he was a civilian. The latter is certainly untrue - there was a lot of juggling of crews and missions prior to Apollo 11. The former... well, I'll reserve judgment on that claim until I've read more on the subject, but I find it hard to believe.

One Giant Leap reads more like a hagiography than a serious attempt to document and understand its subject and his life. I'll admit I knew little about Armstrong - he is, after all, an intensely private man - and I now know more having read One Giant Leap. But I found the book's uncritical appreciation of Armstrong annoying, and its occasional inaccuracies irritating. On the plus side, the book has a good index, and it does seem a fairly complete description of Armstrong's life.

One Giant Leap doesn't really get to grips with Neil Alden Armstrong, the man, although I'll concede that's not an easy task. If there's a better biography of Armstrong available - and James R Hansen's First Man may be it, but we'll see - then I'd suggest One Giant Leap is for completists only.

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong's Stellar American Journey, Leon Wagener (2004, Forge, ISBN 0-312-87343-3, 302pp)

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