Reviewed by: Casey Suire
Title: A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong
Author: James R. Hansen
NSS Amazon link for this book
Publisher: Purdue University Press
Date: May 15, 2020
Retail price: $27.99/$15.39
“A great man is always willing to be little.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson.
With this quote, author James Hansen opens his amazing book, A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong, the second volume of Neil Armstrong letters.
Readers will quickly learn that the First Man’s life was both great and little at the same time. Hundreds of letters written both to and from Armstrong between 1969 and 2012 give the impression of a quiet man trying to balance a normal life with the often burdensome fame that came with walking on the Moon.
The first volume of Armstrong letters, published months earlier, is titled Dear Neil Armstrong. While A Reluctant Icon generally concentrates more on Armstrong’s later life and career, it follows the same format as the first book. Despite the different time periods, the two books are written in such a way that it is not necessary to read Dear Neil Armstrong before A Reluctant Icon. What is necessary is that both books must be read. Just reading one volume of letters will give the reader an incomplete knowledge of Armstrong’s life. To get his full story, please get both books!
In some respects, both volumes tell Armstrong’s story in ways better than even Hansen’s earlier masterpiece biography of Armstrong, First Man. The words and thoughts in each of the two books of letters are Armstrong’s own words and thoughts. This gives Dear Neil Armstrong and A Reluctant Icon a level of authenticity that no biography, no matter how well-written, can match. Although Armstrong was a hard person to get to know, one will feel that they met him personally after reading both books!
A common misconception over the years is that Neil Armstrong was a recluse. While he hated the limelight, letters in A Reluctant Icon reveal that Armstrong was a very busy person. Even towards the end of his life, he was actively involved with several ventures that interested him. Due to his famous achievement, however, a common theme of the letters is that everyone wanted favors from him that would have placed enormous demands on his time. Not surprisingly, Armstrong turned down most of these requests.
In the first chapter, Armstrong generally declined letters about his religious beliefs. In another chapter, Armstrong didn’t answer every autograph request he received. This resulted in many rude letters from people who didn’t understand that it was impractical for Armstrong to provide everyone with a signature. By the 1990’s, Armstrong decided to stop signing autographs completely. Other letters are very bizarre. Examples include letters from Moon hoaxers, prisoners writing from jail, and those seeking financial help. His secretaries were often instructed not to respond to “quacks” and “crazies.”
Armstrong enjoyed more favorable letters from his own peers. Late in his life, he wrote the most to Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan. Notably, he didn’t keep in touch with Buzz Aldrin. Correspondence also exists between Neil and other astronauts such as John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Jim Irwin, just to name a few. Also of interest are letters from Charles Lindbergh, letters to Carl Sagan, and birthday wishes to rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth.
A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of letters involving two men associated with the National Space Society: Gerard K. O’Neill and Wernher von Braun. In 1985, Armstrong wrote a brief letter commenting on a magazine article that O’Neill wrote. For von Braun’s letter, Armstrong is offered an opportunity to join the Board of Governors of the National Space Association. This organization is eventually renamed the National Space Institute and later the National Space Society. Armstrong does show enthusiasm for von Braun’s idea. Ultimately however, as in most instances, Armstrong declines von Braun’s request, writing that he wants to avoid “biting off more than I can chew.”
Like many other letters in A Reluctant Icon, Hansen follows up the Armstrong/von Braun conversation with italicized notes explaining the context of the correspondence. An overview of the National Space Society is provided, with details like Ad Astra magazine and the International Space Development Conference (ISDC). Hansen also reproduces the merger proclamation between the National Space Institute and the L5 Society.
There are a few minor typos involving the dates of certain events. One example is the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which at various points in the book is given a date of 1973, 1974, and eventually and correctly 1975. However, mistakes like this are very infrequent and take nothing away from the meaning of the book. Later editions can easily fix these problems.
A Reluctant Icon is overall very enjoyable. The conversational tone of the letters makes the book a page-turner that is hard to put down. Highly recommended! Next time you look at the Moon, follow the advice of the First Man’s family: “Think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
© 2020 Casey Suire
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