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Neil Armstrong Book Gets Inside the Mind of the Moonwalker

Image: Neil Armstrong

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong grins at the camera inside the Eagle lunar module after completing a moonwalk on July 21, 1969. NASA file

What was it like inside the mind of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon? Two years after his death, and 45 years after his "one giant leap," it's impossible to know precisely. But it is possible to guess — by thumbing through the pages of NBC News space reporter Jay Barbree's latest book, "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight."

Armstrong, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 82 after suffering complications from heart surgery, was arguably America's best-known astronaut. He was also arguably the hardest astronaut to get to know. Barbree, who has been on the space beat for NBC for 56 of his 80 years on Earth, knew him well.

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Armstrong wrote the introduction for "Moon Shot," Barbree's earlier history of the space effort, and for years the journalist tried to get the astronaut to work on another book.

"But every time we got close Neil found he was not comfortable writing about himself," Barbree recalls. "He could in no way brag his accomplishments were greater than others, and finally he told me, 'Jay, you write it. You're a pilot. You're one of us.'"

After Armstrong's death, Barbree did just that — in a folksy, personal style that sounds as if it came from a Southern tale-spinner rather than a biographer. Barbree hates it when folks refer to the book as a biography, and "Neil Armstrong" doesn't pretend to chronicle every chapter of Armstrong's life. That's what makes it different from James Hansen's "First Man," Armstrong's authorized biography.

Author: Neil Armstrong ‘never thought he was special’ 3:47

Instead, Barbree uses Armstrong's aerospace experiences as the foundation for a story about America's space effort. The story starts in earnest with Armstrong's days as a Navy combat pilot in the Korean War, in 1951, and the time he had to eject from a crippled F9F Panther jet.

Armstrong's close scrapes over the years, and the cool demeanor with which he handled them, come up again and again in Barbree's narrative: the time Armstrong nearly lost it in an X-15 rocket plane in 1962 ... the time he had to save his Gemini 8 capsule from a life-threatening spin in orbit in 1966 ... the time he had to bail out of a tumbling lunar-lander simulator in 1968.

It's no wonder Armstrong played it so coolly when he had to take manual control during the first-ever manned moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Barbree recounts Armstrong's quiet triumphs — for example, the subdued way in which he took in the news that he would be on that history-making moon mission. When Armstrong told Barbree confidentially that he'd be commanding Apollo 11, Barbree told him he was the right man for the job.

"Maybe," Armstrong replied. "It was the luck of the draw."

Quiet tragedies

There were also quiet tragedies. Barbree says his close relationship with Armstrong went back to their shared grief over the loss of children: The astronaut's daughter Karen fell victim to a brain tumor at age 3, and Armstrong commiserated with Barbree in 1964 when he found out that the journalist's son Scott had died after a premature birth.

"Neil trusted me with information I believe he would not trust with others."

"From that day forward Neil trusted me with information I believe he would not trust with others," Barbree writes. "It was understood I would not report anything without his permission. I have never knowingly broken that confidence."

You won't find any deep, dark secrets revealed in Barbree's book, but there are some interesting twists and turns. For example, Barbree recounts how NASA kept journalists in the dark about the intended timeline for the Apollo 11 moonwalk. He also passes along an email exchange in which Armstrong personally debunks an old joke about "Mr. Gorsky" and the moon.

"I think there must be a secret club where they give Oscar-like awards for the most outrageous Internet scams in different categories: jokes, photographs, quotes, etc.," Barbree quotes Armstrong as saying. "And there is a great deal of competition!"

UFO mystery, solved at last?

Barbree does present a new take on a longstanding Apollo 11 mystery: a bright object that the astronauts saw in space while they were heading toward the moon. The report sparked decades' worth of UFO speculation — and just this week, Armstrong's crewmate Buzz Aldrin said the object was probably a spent rocket stage or a discarded panel from the lunar module.

In the book, Barbree says he was told by a confidential source that what the astronauts saw was the glint of sunlight from a top-secret spy satellite that was tumbling out of control.

"The only UFO Apollo 11's astronauts were seeing as Neil had suspected had been built here on Earth — one they could not identify," Barbree writes, "and when I told him, he laughed and said, 'Well, what the hell, isn't that what a UFO is — an unidentified flying object?'"

Remembering astronaut Neil Armstrong

Most of Barbree's book focuses on the buildup to Apollo 11, and the narrative quickly glides through the latter part of Armstrong's life: the letdown that followed the lunar mission, his years as a farmer and professor, his role in the investigation of the 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion, and his support of NASA's Constellation back-to-the-moon program — a program that was canceled by President Barack Obama.

That cancellation came as a deep disappointment to Armstrong, but some elements of the plan have since been revived — including NASA's multibillion-dollar project to develop a heavy-lift Space Launch System. Barbree says that the prospect of America's return to deep-space exploration brightened Armstrong's outlook in his final days.

"This sounds good," the journalist quotes the astronaut as saying, "but there is still lots to do."

You could argue, as Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell has, that Armstrong's passing "closed the book on the Camelot of manned spaceflight." Fortunately, books like "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight" are bringing fresh perspectives to that classic Space Age and sparking discussions about the new space ages that lie ahead. There is still lots to do.

IN-DEPTH

NBC News space correspondent Jay Barbree, author of "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight," will discuss the Apollo legacy on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show that airs on Blog Talk Radio and in the Exploratorium's Second Life virtual auditorium. The show airs July 21 at 8 p.m. ET.