Book Review: Ride and Armstrong biographies

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In 2014, new biographies were published about America’s two most well-known space heroes: Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. Just like their subjects, the two books are very different. However, they share an intriguing similarity in that they were both written by close friends of Armstrong and Ride who also happen to be award-winning journalists. This style of book (if we can call it a style) lends itself to an interesting middle-ground between an outright autobiography (which Armstrong and Ride never wrote – both shying away from the spotlight) and the distance of a more traditionally researched biography. I think it is fair to expect from a biography written by a friend of the subject a certain level of insight as well as new information or stories. In the end, only one of these books really delivers on that front.

(As you read my review, keep in mind I have never read the previous Armstrong biography, First Man)

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight is by Jay Barbree, who is a well known journalist in space circles. His credentials are nothing to scoff at: NASA awarded him in 1995 as the only journalist to report on all 100 manned spaceflights.. Thus, it is not surprising that Barbree’s relationship with Armstrong goes all the way back to the early 1960s – Armstrong apparently even carried a memento to the moon for him on Apollo 11. Unfortunately, Barbree has tried to right a book for far too general an audience, and leaves out a lot of personal insights that might have been interesting to people that already have a good background on the history of NASA and the space program.

A Life of Flight opens with a thrilling telling of Armstrong’s ejection over Korea in the early 1950s and moves from there directly into his career with NACA and then later NASA. The story of Armstrong’s work before the astronaut corps – especially his time at Edwards – is very interesting and deserving of the time. However, leaving out his even earlier life leaves something to be desired as far as knowing the man. Barbree then rushes us into Armstrong’s selection as an astronaut in 1962 and from here the narrative goes downhill, in my opinion. Barbree’s choice of tone for the book from here on out is to try to give us Armstrong’s perspective and thoughts on all of the events of the space program, even those for which Armstrong as tangentially related. While I believe Barbree probably really did know Neil’s thoughts on all of these events, the choice of tense to tell the story as if we are seeing the entire space program unfold through Neil’s eyes comes off as a bit campy and although much of it may be accurate, many of the direct quotations are certainly based loosely on recollections at best.

Overall, A Life of Flight gives a good overview of the Gemini and Apollo programs and the life of Neil Armstrong for readers that may not already be well read on the history of NASA. For me, I felt myself constantly wishing Barbree would get on with it and when he would get through the things I can read in other more traditional space histories and learn what Armstrong the man was really like. Unfortunately, that book I was hoping for never materialized before the final chapter, when Barbree outlines his political views on the current state of the space program (going as far as to even mention political figures), an unfortunate choice, as it will quickly date itself after just one or two election cycles.

I was very happy to find that Sally Ride: America’s First Woman In Space by Lynn Sherr, does indeed deliver. Sherr has less experience with space reporting but covered the Space Shuttle program in depth for ABC in the 80s. Like, Barbree and Armstrong, Sherr and Ride met early in Ride’s NASA career, during Sherr’s first trip to Houston in 1981. They became fast friends after their first interview there at JSC. Despite their close friendship, Sherr did not even know the truth about some aspects of Ride’s private life until after she passed in 2012. The effect this had on her emotionally comes through in the book, as she struggles to understand a woman who was at once both so close and so distant.

If you don’t like biographies that spend time on a person’s lineage and background before they were famous, then you may actually like the Armstrong book more, as Sally Ride spends almost 100 pages on Ride’s family, youth, upbringing, and education before she is recruited at NASA as part of the first Space Shuttle class of astronauts in the late 1970s. However, Ride was an intriguing personality and a tough nut to crack, without understanding how she got there – and it was a bit of a windy road – the reader would lose much of what makes Ride such an enigma. What I love about Sherr’s biography is that she is not soft on telling us about Ride’s faults – she was often standoffish, hard to get close to, and kept to herself. This fits with what others have said about her: Mullane does not paint himself as a fan of Ride in his own memoir Riding Rockets. But with her unique position as a lifelong friend, Sherr is able to also give us a balanced view of Ride’s commitment and loyalty to friends who made it into her inner circle.

It may be unfair in some ways to compare these two books. Sally Ride was a symbol of social change, almost gaining all of her fame merely by being selected as an astronaut before she ever flew. We didn’t know it until recently, but not only did she break through gender barriers but she was breaking through barriers of sexual orientation, as well. By contrast, Neil Armstrong was just another white male test pilot in the 1950s and 1960s. While he is a true American hero in his own right, and wore his fame with a quiet dignity, his story does not have the same power as that of Sally Ride.

Sally Ride had me riveted the entire time, while A Life of Flight had me constantly wondering when I would learn something new. If you are a space geek – and let’s face it, you are or you wouldn’t be reading this – you are going to want to read Sally Ride but you might want to skip Barbree’s offering and go pick up First Man instead, which is on my 2016 reading list.

You can get both books I have reviewed here for reasonable prices on Amazon (links below).

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight

Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space

December 15, 2015 9:45 pm

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