As the new space age unfolded, John Glenn became the first astronaut from my home state of Ohio to become part of history. He was the first American to orbit the earth in February 1962. Fate had more in store for another Ohioan, and when Neil Armstrong of Wapakoneta was chosen to land on the moon, the space program became very personal.

My entire growing up years were spent in a small rural community just 15 miles from the town we called Wapak. It too was small but was an organized town with several restaurants and grocery stores and most exciting a public swimming pool. Because I knew Wapak well I felt Neil’s early years had been similar to mine.

Our family vacation began on July 16, 1969, launch day for Apollo 11. On that morning I, my teen-age daughter and nephew, my mother and father joined my sister and her husband in their station wagon and headed south on I-75. As we approached the Wapak exit, a huge banner hung from the overpass with the words “Godspeed, Neil.” Even all these years later I feel goosebumps remembering those words.

As we traveled we listened to the progress of the mission on the car radio. We planned carefully to be settled in a hotel on Sunday, June 20, to view the projected landing time. All went well and we gathered around the television in the Stone Mountain Hotel in Georgia and thrilled at the words, “The eagle has landed.” And then to see Armstrong and Aldrin step onto the moon challenged our imagination.

The next day we visited some of the attractions and often my Daddy would tire and wait for us in one of the rocking chairs on the porch. If one of the visitors spoke to him he never missed the chance to tell them he lived near Armstrong’s hometown.

Unlike so many of the astronauts, Armstrong’s response to his part in the moon landing was a stoic silence. He gave no interviews and few autographs. Yes, he participated in the events and tours NASA planned but that was all.

It took the patience and persistence of a history professor from Auburn University, James R. Hansen, to reveal the real Armstrong. Hansen wrote Neil a letter in October 1999 suggesting there should be a biography. Many letters and e-mails followed and finally in September 2001 the two met face to face. In June 2002 they signed a contract for an authorized biography. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong was published in 2005, 36 years after the Apollo mission.

The 648-page book carried three pages of praise from reviewers. One stated, “Hansen’s research is staggeringly impressive.” Indeed that is so true. The author covers every phase of Armstrong’s personal and professional life from his family history before his birth to his years in retirement today.

Veteran space reporter Walter Cronkite wrote, “If you think you know everything about Neil Armstrong and America’s historic mission… First Man contributes a host of fascinating new insights into the nature of the spacefaring enterprise itself. A book for all time.”

Hansen wrote at the book’s end that, “Neil read and commented on every draft chapter but made no changes.” I appreciated that information. Once Armstrong had committed to the project he trusted the author. Hansen had excellent credentials as the author of eight books on the history of aerospace and had served as historian for NASA.

First Man opens Armstrong’s life from birth to senior citizen. Now we know the real man who spoke those eternal words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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