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One small step

The private man behind an all-time public moment

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
By James R. Hansen
Simon & Schuster, 769 pp., illustrated, $30

''How long must it take," lamented Neil Armstrong to an Ohio newspaper reporter in 1976, ''before I cease to be known as a spaceman?"

This curious repine from the world's most famous astronaut seems, on one hand, churlish and petulant. What did he expect, volunteering for a program whose intention was to place a human being, for the first time in history, onto the surface of another heavenly body? The successful flight of Apollo 11 stands for better or worse as the defining accomplishment of the modern age, and arguably of all time. Armstrong's dusty lunar bootprint is the literal and figurative postmark of our collective imagination. If he can't deal with that, well, shame on him.

At the same time, his grievance is a noble and dutiful one. Armstrong was picked for the astronaut corps for his technical acumen and unflappable temperament, not for his smile or with the demands of publicity in mind. Reticent, dispassionate, and seldom given to lofty philosophizing, he never set out to ride rockets into outer space on behalf of all mankind; he was a test pilot and engineer first. ''What I attended to was the progressive development of flight machinery" is how Armstrong sums up his career. ''I flew to the Moon not so much to go there but as part of developing the systems that would allow it to happen."

The journey of Apollo 11 was itself a contradiction -- grandiose and romantic, yet grounded in the coarse and earthly rivalries of the Cold War. Inside their capsules, Armstrong and his colleagues were at similar odds. These men weren't explorers or adventurers by design; they were fliers, only the most competent of whom had been culled for this new and remarkable duty.

But more than 30 years after his epic first step, Armstrong's legacy is, for right and wrong, inexorably linked to space. There's no getting around it, and his story, even the parts he'd rather we not dwell upon, is the ideal one for America in 2005. The timing of James R. Hansen's ''First Man" is fortuitous in that it encourages us to reassess the whole notion of heroism, a concept so cheaply overplayed nowadays. The astronauts of Apollo 11 were in many ways the last of our prepared heroes, cut from a finer cloth and chosen for a job that all but guaranteed glory. Today our heroes arrive by accident, usually the result of some terrible misfortune -- the Manhattan firefighter, the murdered policeman, the fallen soldier.

Never enamored of his own notoriety, Armstrong has shunned the public eye, and for that he is viewed by many as a reclusive ingrate. American culture has had its share of enigmatic icons, but Armstrong is peculiar in that his renown never changed him; from start to finish he's remained the same. That more than anything is what frustrates us. We're unable to realize that the traits that have made him a smaller-than-life public figure are probably the ones that made him the perfect commander of Apollo 11. Armstrong is more than aware of his own historical significance. But he also knows that he was, at heart, merely a soldier in the great space race of the 1960s.

If only his biographer were a tad better at exploring the value and meaning of this reluctant eminence. One of the problems with nonfiction can be a too-strong relationship between author and subject, and we see that in ''First Man" to painful extreme. It cuts both ways, of course: Who better to tackle the complexities of a particular field than somebody with a grasp of its history and vernacular? On the other hand, who more likely to get carried away and bore us to tears? Hansen, author of eight prior aerospace books, is too much enthusiast and not enough writer, failing to grasp which ideas and nuances readers, which is to say anybody except another aerospace buff, will deem meaningful. For pages at a time he loses control, blasting off into excruciating detail on semi-relevant technical matters. Thanks to Hansen's infatuations, we learn as much about the armaments of fighter planes and the arcana of a rocket launch as we do about Armstrong. This is partly why ''First Man" clocks in at more than 700 not-very-gravity-defying pages.

And tellingly, while Hansen sympathizes with his subject's longing to be remembered as more than a famous spaceman, less than a quarter of the book discusses Armstrong's life after 1969. Hansen, like the rest of us, can't help but acknowledge Armstrong's unavoidable place in history.

Patrick Smith is a columnist for Salon.com, and author of ''Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel."

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