Today, I finished reading all 654 pages of James Hansen’s First Man, the biography of former NASA astronaut and first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. While this book was not my favorite in terms of astronaut books (I personally feel that Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins is one of the best books examining NASA’s golden era), I do feel that Hansen’s examination of Neil’s life lends three very important lessons to his readers.
First, almost everyone who has known Neil has described him as a man of few words. His lack of elaboration and answering questions directly and succinctly seemed to constantly frustrate NASA controllers, friends, and the press. Many commented that they thought that Neil, rather than speaking rashly, he would take time to very carefully choose his words and answer accordingly. While this might have frustrated many, I think we can learn from Neil that, especially for people in high-profile leadership positions, we should choose our words very carefully. In today’s internet-saturated world, it is very easy for one comment to be passed to individuals worldwide very quickly. Furthermore, if one’s words are chosen carefully and then taken out of context, it can be very difficult for viral damage to be undone. This reminds me of James’ exhortation, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (James 1:19 ESV) Furthermore, let us remember Paul’s words to the Ephesian church, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29 ESV) So, let us begin today thinking before we speak in order that we might be properly understood while also building up those around us.
Second, Neil Armstrong provides us with a perfect example that hard work and determination may bring about great opportunities. Early in his flight career with the US Navy, he did not always receive high marks. Even later as a test pilot, some of his colleagues did not think he was the best pilot in their group. However, over his career as a pilot and later as an astronaut, Neil showed that he was thoroughly committed to the task at hand and that he was willing to learn from his mistakes rather than dwelling on them. Eventually, the pilot who had received poor marks in training would command one of the most dangerous missions in history – the moon landing. Just because we may fail at something (or in his case, crash in a jet or a lunar landing training vehicle), does not mean that we should give up on our goals.
Third, and finally, there is something about Neil that we should not seek to emulate, that is his divorce from his wife of 38 years. One tragic result of his time as an astronaut and a test pilot was that Neil was rarely at home spending time with his wife and family. The intense training and subsequent fame of the Apollo astronauts contributed to several marriage failures of those men who would walk on the moon. (13 of the 21 men who went to the moon had marriages that ended in separation or divorce, p. 290) Although part of the blame should lie with NASA for not seeking to provide an environment where families could be encouraged and supported, ultimately, blame must lie with the men – the leaders of the home. It might be wise for us to take that as a lesson, that while our careers are important, we should never forget to invest time in our relationship with our spouse, even if that means changing careers. It is easier to repair a damaged career than to repair a damaged family. As men, our goal should be to love our wives sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25).
Overall, I am very thankful for Neil Armstrong allowing James Hansen to write this in-depth look at an American hero. Although it is a very long and detailed book, I feel that it is a “must-have” for anyone desiring to know more about the life of the “first man” and the early years of NASA.
Click HERE for a slideshow about Neil and the Apollo 11 mission from the Washington Post