Jennifer Johnson, 334/844-5964
AU HISTORIAN WRITING NEIL ARMSTRONG BIOGRAPHY
AUBURN -- Auburn University historian James R. Hansen has succeeded where acclaimed writers such as the late Stephen Ambrose and James Michener previously failed.
Hansen has been selected to write the authorized biography of former astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon.
The professor in the AU Department of History says he hopes to complete his research for the book by this summer and have it published within two years.
"I feel incredibly lucky," Hansen says. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime -- kind of my own moon landing."
Hansen said he first contacted Armstrong about three years ago to seek his permission for the biography, but Armstrong politely declined. Following months of correspondence, however, the two became better acquainted and, in the summer of 2001, Armstrong finally gave his approval.
"Armstrong wanted someone who is an academic -- someone who has scholarship first and foremost in mind," Hansen said. "I think landing the task was a combination of the nature of my own work in the history of science and technology, plus catching him at the right time."
Hansen has published four books and more than two dozen articles and book chapters on the history of science and technology and its impact on society. He has seven books currently in press. Much of his work involves NASA and aerospace history.
"Any number of people had approached him, but he always said he was too busy to get involved," says Hansen. "I wasn't sure he was interested in doing it, but I wasn't discouraged. I sent him a copy of all my books. He did eventually invite me to his home in Cincinnati, and I think that went well."
Hansen does not yet have a publisher lined up, but he has already been in talks with major trade press publishers. Several Hollywood film producers have also shown interest.
"I won't compromise the academic value of the book," he says, "but I hope to write it in a way that it will be accessible to a mass audience. I think this book can bridge that gap."
So far, Hansen's research has taken him coast-to-coast.
"Neil is a lot more than just an astronaut," says Hansen. "He was an astronaut for just eight years. He's a professional engineer and a test pilot, and he flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War. The book will cover his entire life, starting with his boyhood in Ohio."
Hansen says Armstrong has given him complete freedom in telling his life's story.
"It's my book and my interpretation," he says. "It's going to be a 'critical' biography that tells the story as honestly as I can."
Hansen says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s was naturally protective of its astronauts personal lives, "leaving "a sanitized view for history that is not really quite honest."
"There are many extraordinary aspects to Armstrong's flying record that most people know nothing at all about and will be very surprised to learn," he said. "He's certainly been a very private person."
Meanwhile Hansen's research has also taken a local turn.
Through an Auburn student, he located at an Auburn retirement home 85-year-old Aubrey Knudegaard -- the man who taught Armstrong to fly in 1945. Hansen interviewed Knudegaard, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot, who tutored the then-15-year-old Armstrong at an Ohio air field nearly 60 years ago.
Hansen was also able to gain access to exclusive Life magazine interviews with former astronauts through Auburn alumnus Don Logan, who is chairman of AOL/Time Warner's Media and Communications Group, Inc.
"I wrote Dr. Logan a letter and told him what I was doing," Hansen said. "A couple of weeks later I got a call from one of the senior editors at Time Inc. and he said that Dr. Logan had sent word down to make this happen."
The materials -- which date back to the 1960s -- have never before been available to an independent researcher, and may never be again, Hansen said. "Whatever they have on Armstrong and his wife and his parents, whatever personal materials they collected, that's all going to be available to me. That's a wonderful resource that I'll be able to tap into, and without the Auburn connection, it wouldn't have happened."
CONTACT: Hansen, 334/844-6628.