Barbree’s new book lifts veil on famed astronaut Armstrong’s private life


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Jay Barbree covers the liftoff of shuttle Atlantis on July 8, 2011, the final mission of the shuttle program and the 166th manned flight Barbree covered for NBC News. The 80-year-old space correspondent’s NBC contract runs through 2016.

St. Martin’s Press

Jay Barbree has good reason to feel over the moon these days.

The south Merritt Island resident and longtime NBC News space correspondent’s ninth book, “Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight,” (St. Martin’s Press) has rocketed onto the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists. Reviews have been mostly positive. John Glenn, the first American in orbit, wrote the foreword. There’s already talk of a possible movie based on Barbree’s intimate account of his trusted but famously private friend, the first man to walk on the moon.

“It’s about as good as it gets for a writer,” said Barbree, 80, the only journalist to have covered all 166 U.S. manned launches. “My wife, Jo, immediately brought in two carpenters to widen the front door so I could get my head through. I could only get out the sliding back doors — I got that big-headed. No really, it’s a wonderful feeling.”

Barbree moved to Brevard in 1958 and covered rocket launches between traffic reports for WEZY-AM in Cocoa Beach. When he noticed that NBC didn’t have a presence at the Cape, he applied and was hired, starting a career that has spanned 56 years. His current NBC contract runs through 2016.

Barbree said he and Armstrong had discussed writing a book for two decades. The Early County, Ga. native had featured Armstrong in several of his other books, and Armstrong had written the introduction to Barbree’s 1994 bestseller “Moon Shot.” But Armstrong felt uncomfortable talking about his achievements and put off the project.

“You couldn’t get him to brag on himself,” Barbree said.

Finally, after an event at Kennedy Space Center honoring Barbree for 50 years of space coverage, Armstrong  gave Barbree the go-ahead. Barbree had completed the first chapter and received Armstrong’s approval just before the astronaut died in August 2012 at age 82, after suffering complications from heart surgery.

Barbree spent 21 months working on the 350-page book, drawing from 50 years of conversations with Armstrong along with notes, transcripts and interviews with the space hero’s close associates.

The result is a reportage-style account of Armstrong’s life rather than biography, focusing on his days as a supremely skilled Korean War pilot and X-15 test pilot, his selection as an astronaut, his near-fatal flight aboard Gemini 8, his historic first steps on the lunar surface, his post-NASA life and his vision for future space exploration. The book’s July release was timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“I have tried to get into what Neil told me about how he felt on the moon, and I’m getting good reviews and good compliments on it and I’m thankful and grateful because I had an awful lot of help,” Barbree said. “We probably got 100 people in there who contributed. But the biggest contributor, of course, was Neil.”

Throughout the book, Armstrong demonstrates his cool demeanor and quick decision-making in crises. He ejected from an F9F jet fighter over Korea after an anti-aircraft wire sawed off part of a wing. He regained control of Gemini 8 after a stuck thruster sent the spacecraft tumbling, then executed NASA’s first-ever emergency re-entry. And he guided the lunar module Eagle away from a football field-sized crater and onto a smoother section of the moon’s surface with less than 20 seconds of fuel to spare. 

Shared tragedies forged a close relationship between Barbree and Armstrong. One day in 1964, after Armstrong had encountered a despondent Barbree at the Howard Johnson in Cocoa Beach, Barbree told the astronaut that his 2-day-old son Scott had succumbed to a respiratory disease the day before. Armstrong then confided that his 3-year-old daughter Karen Anne had died of a brain tumor in 1962.

“It pretty well wrecked him because, being a man of science, he couldn’t come up with some way to save her and there was just no way to do it back then in the ’60s,” said Barbree, who writes in the book that the loss of his daughter likely was a key reason why Armstrong applied to be one of NASA’s “Gemini Nine” astronauts, the first group chosen after the Original Mercury Seven.

Armstrong had a dry sense of humor, Barbree noted, but he generally avoided the press. His insistence on privacy sparked the only disagreement between the two men. Armstrong, who had developed a friendship with Charles Lindbergh, had been advised by the aviation pioneer to live a quiet life out of the spotlight, as Lindbergh had done after his son’s kidnapping and murder.

“I told Neil the difference between him and Lindbergh was very basic,” Barbree recalled. “Lindbergh flew to Paris on the Spirit of St. Louis with financial backers. They went on their own dime. The government was not involved. Neil went to the moon on the taxpayers’ dime and the taxpayer has the right to know everything.”

After the Apollo program ended, Armstrong grew disillusioned with NASA’s decision not to push out farther into space, Barbree said. 

“He felt we should be getting back out past Earth orbit,” he said. “We haven’t been out of Earth orbit in 42 years.”

Barbree shares Armstrong’s desire for an aggressive American space program dedicated to exploration and “building a stockpile” of knowledge and technology.

“There’s one must that we must do: We must be able to get off this planet,” he said. “We’re not going to survive as a species if we don’t have somewhere to go. Earth is just a cradle. Who knows how much longer we’re going to be able to live on it?” 

BOOK SIGNING

 Jay Barbree will present “The View From Within the Spacesuit” at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22 in the Hartley Room of the Denius Student Center at Florida Tech, 150 W. University Blvd., Melbourne. A cocktail hour and book signing starts at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. Former NASA astronaut Capt. Winston Scott will introduce Barbree. A limited number of copies of Barbree’s book will be available for sale at the event. Guest admission is $60; Lifelong Scholar Society member admission is $50. Call 321-674-8382, option 2, for more information and tickets.