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We talked with James R. Hansen, Neil Armstrong’s authorized biographer, about his new book with Purdue University Press Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind.

Dear Neil Armstrong publishes a careful sampling—roughly 400—of the thousands of letters sent to Neil Armstrong from the day of the moon landing to the day of his passing, reflecting the various kinds of correspondence that Armstrong received along with representative samples of his replies.

 


 

Q: You’ve already written First Man, the definitive authorized account of Neil Armstrong, what motivated you to take on this new project?

James R. Hansen: I find not just the biography but even more the iconography of the First Man on the Moon endlessly fascinating. “Definitive” is relative. There’s always more to know, to learn, to discover. For First Man, I did not have total access to Neil’s correspondence. For the past four or five years I did have access, in the Purdue Archives, and, as a result, I have a lot more to share with the world about Armstrong.

 

Q: What do you think is the most commonly misunderstood thing about Neil Armstrong, and how could looking through these letters remedy that misunderstanding?

cover of the book Dear Neil, the title is written on a stack of letters

“Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind” by James R. Hansen

 

Hansen: That he was ultra-private, closed off, a near-recluse. The letters show that Neil was not any of those things, not at all. He was very engaged in the world around him, though he had his own particular ways and standards of how he would engage with society and culture.

 

Q: There are some 75,000 letters stored in the Purdue University Archives and Special collections, what was it like paring it down to the roughly 400 that made it into the book?

Hansen: It was very hard to keep my selection of letters to that size, because almost every letter to Neil, and every reply from him, offered interesting new insights into who he was, and even more so into who we were, in terms of what we thought about our hero and what we wanted from him.

 

Q: Was there any overarching theme or trend in the letters that surprised you most?

Hansen: Nothing in the letters made me change my basic understanding of Armstrong. What they did, however, is add depth, richness, and resonance to everything I had already come to understand about his as a person and as an icon.

 

Q: Were there any letters that didn’t make it in the book that still stick out to you?

Hansen: I tried very hard to include all the letters that stuck out to me! Some of the truly crazy letters that were written to him, which included some threatening letters from stalkers and other disturbed individuals, I chose not to include: letters from people in mental asylums, criminal penitentiaries, or people who should have been. Some of the letters were so disturbing that I did not want to present them in the book.

 

Q: What do you most hope to accomplish with this book?

Hansen: Foremost, I hope people today and forevermore will understand and appreciate Neil Armstrong not just as a global icon but a flesh-and-blood three-dimensional human being, with faults, defects, and limitations, just like all the rest of us. But I also hope the reader stops from time to time to think, “Shame on us.” Shame on us for not being more considerate for the situation of our celebrities and great public figures. Day in and day out, we just ask way too much of them.

 


 

You can order Dear Neil Armstrong now, and get 30% off when using the discount code PURDUE30 on the Purdue University Press website.