James Hansen is fielding interview requests from around the world, following last weekend’s death of an American hero.
As author of the only authorized biography of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, Hansen has been asked to share anecdotes with audiences in Australia, China, Chile and Turkey.
The Fort Wayne native also was interviewed Tuesday evening at his sister’s local home by a crew from the Discovery Channel, which is putting together an hourlong special on Armstrong that could air as early as tonight.
Hansen, an Auburn University professor, sat down with The Journal Gazette on Wednesday morning to reminisce about his relationship with Armstrong and how his northeast Indiana background helped him woo the notoriously private and unassuming astronaut.
The road you take from Fort Wayne to Columbus, Ohio, which is where I went to graduate school, goes right through Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong’s birthplace, Hansen said.
In that sense, the two men’s future collaboration seems almost destined, the author said. But at that time, Hansen wasn’t specializing in the history of space travel. It wasn’t until after he had received his Ph.D. and was offered a position as NASA historian that his professional path would take shape.
The 1970 Elmhurst High School graduate has taught history at Auburn since 1986. He’s now on a one-year sabbatical after spending six years as director of Auburn’s Honors College. In January, Hansen will return to the classroom, where he teaches courses exploring the history of flight, the space program, and science and technology.
The professor first contacted the astronaut in 2000. Armstrong, who was 70, wrote a polite letter of refusal – a letter that Hansen thought left a little opening for future contact. So the author mailed a box with some of his published works as a gift – no pressure.
Armstrong liked what he read, especially a biography of an engineer, someone he could relate to. Hansen believes the astronaut liked the fact that the author understands science and technology and is comfortable wading into those areas Armstrong loved. The book also established that Hansen wasn’t out to sensationalize Armstrong’s NASA career and personal life.
The men came from similar backgrounds, families that had once made their living by farming. Wapakoneta, with a population of about 9,500, is about 70 miles from Fort Wayne off U.S. 33.
Hansen spent some of his college years in Ohio; Armstrong attended Purdue University in West Lafayette.
Even the way we talked was with similar accents, Hansen said.
It also helped that Armstrong’s second wife and other family members were encouraging him to record his life story for future generations.
I think I came into his life at the right time, Hansen said. It just really worked out. We clicked.
Even so, the two-year project required great effort.
Hansen struggled to remain objective despite his growing fondness for his subject. The author was committed to producing a scholarly book that told the true story of Armstrong’s life and captured even unattractive aspects of his personality.
Armstrong didn’t retain veto power on what was included in the biography, although the author did ask his subject to read every one of the 648 pages to verify facts and add details.
As a result, Hansen was able to debunk stories a Wapakoneta man had told for years about how he had supposedly tutored Armstrong on outer space, allowing the young Armstrong to view the stars as he dreamed of flying toward them.
The truth was that Armstrong grew up wanting to design airplanes and never even dreamed of traveling into space. He met Jacob Zint only once, when his Boy Scout troop visited the amateur astronomer’s telescope, an instrument he wasn’t allowed to touch.
The mythical version of their relationship was widely reported at the time of the Apollo 11 mission, so much so that Zint was assigned his own convertible to ride in during Armstrong’s hometown parade after his return to Earth. The astronaut, who never pointed out the falsehood until his biographer asked for more details, said he didn’t correct the lies sooner because they weren’t hurting anyone.
Hansen’s meticulous research also revealed that Armstrong and his first wife lost a 2-year-old daughter to a brain tumor before he became an astronaut. The stoic couple didn’t talk about her death to anyone – even each other.
Such emotional experiences were overwhelming to Armstrong. Hansen believes the hero lacked any desire to be introspective. The author struggled to draw cause-and-effect connections in the astronaut’s life because Armstrong had never come to those conclusions for himself.
If I were doing the book again, there are some places I’d try to penetrate a little deeper into his psyche, Hansen said.
The author learned Armstrong could become so focused on his own interests that he became oblivious to what was happening around him. For example, Armstrong tried to correct Hansen, who wrote in a draft that Armstrong’s grandmother had moved in with his family when he was a freshman in high school. That didn’t happen, he said, until after he’d gone to college.
But Armstrong’s sister verified the original date and chided her brother that he didn’t take note of things that didn’t affect him directly. The sister was sure of the date, she said, because she’d been asked to give up her bedroom for their grandmother.
Hansen was in contact with Armstrong until shortly before his death Saturday from complications associated with a heart procedure. Hansen has been invited to attend a family and friends-only funeral Friday in Cincinnati.
He traveled to Indiana last weekend to attend his nephew’s wedding. He’s spending this week visiting his sister, Carol Busse, who spends part of the year in her local home. Their brother, Larry Hansen, lives in Markle.
The biographer who fought to retain his objectivity feels as if he’s lost a friend with Armstrong’s passing.
Hansen recalled how he was consumed by the book project.
I was just totally obsessed with it, he said. I drove the family crazy. At one point, my wife made a rule that I could have only one Neil story per meal. But she didn’t set a time limit.
Hansen, a gifted storyteller, smiled and laughed. It’s clear he found ways to make one tale last from appetizers through dessert.