[REVIEW] Letters to John Glenn and Neil Armstrong

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Book Review

Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind edited by James R. Hansen
A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong edited by James R. Hansen
“P. S. I Listened to Your Heartbeat” Letters to John Glenn by John Glenn

Review by Glen E. Swanson
Published in Quest Volume: 28 #1 (2021)

In this review, I cover three books. One published 57 years ago and the others published just this past year. All are collections of letters to astronauts. The first is a collection of letters to John Glenn. The other two contain letters to Neil Armstrong. Heroes of human spaceflight, these two men could not have been more different.

Letters to John Glenn

In the days before the internet, physical letters helped capture the pulse of what the public thought of its heroes. In 1964, John Glenn was the first astronaut to allow readers a glimpse of his fan mail when he published, “P.S. I Listened to your Heartbeat” Letters to John Glenn. The book came out sometime after Glenn left NASA. Soon after leaving the space program, Glenn had a serious fall. On 24 February 1964 while adjusting a heavy mirror, Glenn slipped on a throw rug on a slick bathroom floor causing him to strike the left side of his head. This affected the balance mechanisms near his left ear leaving him sensitive to head motions. Glenn was in the hospital for two months followed by additional months recuperating at home. Glenn had a lot of downtime to catch up on correspondence.

Published by Field Enterprises Educational Corp, the same folks who produced the World Book Encyclopedia, Glenn’s book was one of the products that emerged following the exclusive Time Life contract with the Mercury astronauts arranged by NASA. These early contracts allowed LIFE magazine and later Field Enterprises exclusivity in publishing the astronaut stories. This book presents some 422 excerpts from John’s Glenn’s mail. Printed anonymously, these were compiled from over 175,000 letters that Glenn received following his successful three-orbit Mercury spaceflight of 20 February 1962.

Glenn had charisma and politicians took notice, including then President Kennedy who encouraged Glenn to pursue political office, which he later did. People everywhere trusted and believed in Glenn. “I felt so drawn to him,” wrote an Apollo, Pennsylvania, man to Glenn’s parents. “He seemed like my own son.” A couple in LaCrosse, Washington, wrote the marine colonel. “Please forgive the American public for being a little silly and sentimental, but we needed a hero badly and you filled the bill far and above our wildest dreams.”

Tens of thousands of American wrote Glenn asking him for his favorite music (“I like many selections; music is the language of the emotions”); his favorite poems (“Your teacher may not thank me for suggesting this but try reading The Shooting of Dan McGrew”); his favorite hymn (“Be Still My Soul”); and his favorite Bible verses (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 and Psalm 139:9-10). They also wrote him for his opinions of right and wrong (“Right, as a Hemingway character once said, is what you feel good after.”); his views on smoking (“It can apparently do no good and may do great harm—so why start?”); the relationship between science and religion (“Actually the more I learn in science the more I feel I am proving God’s existence.”); his favorite prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”)

In addition to a foreword written by Glenn, his book is divided into 15 thematic chapters with introductions for each written by the astronaut. These include such titles as “On My Honor, I Will Do My Best…,” “The Hand of God,” “Fears, Wants—and Hopes,” and “‘P.S. About That Crate of Eggs.’” Almost all of the letters lack any attribution. Some are reproduced in their original typed or handwritten form.

The inside endpapers of the book contain a collection of postmarks, the result of one of the more unusual gifts received by Glenn. Shortly after his historic flight, Glenn received a big black notebook filled with over 175 postmarked envelopes from different towns across America. These were collected and assembled by a woman in Texas and placed in the proper sequence to tell the story of Glenn’s orbital Mercury flight: “Glenn Wake Early, Shook Sleepy-Eye. Felt Fine. Haddam Bath. Eaton Orange, Toast, Anmoore. Hima Hungry-Horse. Dresden Silver Overall. Combs Flat-Top Bald-Knob. Glendon Helmet…” well, you get the picture.

Those looking for information about Project Mercury will be disappointed as this is less about the mechanics of the space program and more about what people thought about Glenn and his first spaceflight. Glenn would return to space in 1998 when he flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-98 mission. The book offers a glimpse of American ideology during the Cold War when the Space Race was heating up prior to Apollo 11. I note the book as being worth examining in comparison to the letters received by another astronaut who garnered great attention but handled his resulting fame much differently.

Letters to Neil Armstrong

Glenn’s personality served to greatly help him create the image of a hero and his deeds reinforced that. In the case of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the surface of another world, the deed overshadowed the personality and people projected onto him what they thought a hero should be. Living up to a nation’s adopted symbol is never an easy task. Whereas John Glenn embraced this challenge, Neil Armstrong loathed it.

In the years following noted spaceflight historian James Hansen’s publication of First Man, the 2005 biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong, Purdue University received some 450 archival boxes of materials from Armstrong. A year before Armstrong’s death in 2012, Purdue established a new archive on space exploration for the papers of individuals such as pilots, astronauts, engineers, researchers, and others, with an emphasis on those with Purdue University connections. Armstrong graduated from Purdue in 1955.

In these boxes donated by the family, there contained over 70,000 pieces of fan mail that Armstrong received during his life. Hansen did not have full access to Armstrong’s papers while he was working on his biography. Armstrong would not allow it even though Hansen, as Armstrong’s official biographer, had greater access to the intensely private astronaut than anyone else ever had.

Beginning in summer 2015 and over the course of the next three summers, Hansen pored through Armstrong’s letters. The end result was a series of two books published in 2020 by Purdue University Press: Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind and A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong.

“When I was going through all of Armstrong’s letters, I had to set up a triage. They were arranged in the collection alphabetically by author. My first cut from the 70,000 letters reduced them to 10,000,” explained Hansen during a recent interview that I conducted with him. “I then set up a five-star rating system where I would place stars in the corner of hard copies made from digital scans to indicate their relative importance. The more stars, the more important it was.”

In discussing the origins of his books, Hansen pointed out that when he first set out to publish Armstrong’s letters, his editors originally intended it to be a single trade press book. Hansen was given an advance and worked on it for about a year. After about a year the editor said, “You know, you’re going to need to have permission from every one of your letter writers,” said Hansen. Hansen explained to his editor that this would take forever. Many of these letters were written from children who would be well over 50 years old by now. “So I gave them my best effort,” said Hansen. “I took 150 of my five-star letters and did everything I could to find their addresses short of hiring a detective.” Hansen managed to get in contact with about 45 of these 150 original letter writers. His publisher then asked him, “can you publish a book with 45 letters?” Frustrated, Hansen paid back his advance and walked away from his publisher.

Since Purdue University was a nonprofit academic press and home to Armstrong’s papers, Hansen felt that he would have an easier time and feel more justified in publishing the letters through them, even if he could not track down all of the writers. “We did work harder to track down writers of letters that may have been more controversial,” said Hansen. “I even secured permission to print the ‘Hoosier’ letter from former Vice President Dan Quayle. This was extra proof that Dan isn’t the smartest potato in the basket!”

The letter that Hansen is referring to appears on pages 294-295 of Dear Neil Armstrong. This letter is from former Vice President Dan Quayle. A native of Indiana, Quayle served as honorary chairman of a “Homegrown Hoosier” campaign that was launched in 1987 by The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in an effort to redefine Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “Hoosier” from an “awkward, unhandy or unskilled person, especially an ignorant rustic” to something more pleasing.

Quayle reached out to Armstrong to encourage him to join this effort so that the dictionary might consider redefining the term as someone who is “quick, smart, resourceful, etc.” In Quayle’s letter to Armstrong he wrote, “as a native-born Hoosier, we’re asking you to help us change the meaning of the word.” Armstrong’s secretary wrote back, “Since Mr. Armstrong is not a native-born Hoosier, he believes that it would be inappropriate for him to participate.” Armstrong was born in Ohio.

Hansen’s published collection of letters has proven useful in dispelling several misconceptions and misquotes about Armstrong. Among them is a statement commonly attributed to Armstrong regarding his avoidance of physical exercise. In a story originally attributed to Julian Scheer of NASA Public Affairs, Walter Cronkite was interviewing the Apollo 11 crew shortly before launch. In that interview, he asked each man what he did to keep in shape. Collins and Aldrin told Cronkite that they jogged daily or did isometric exercise. Scheer stated that Armstrong had told Walter, “I believe that the good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats. I’m damned if I’m going to use mine up running up and down a street!” Armstrong wrote that the quote is not factual and that it “was first attributed to me in a LIFE magazine article.” He went on to state that, “I was at a dinner party and had quoted someone else making the same remark” but that “I have never made any such statement” and that the quote had been often attributed to him. Armstrong said of the faulty statement, “I have been quoted so often that even some of my closest friends now believe it (and repeat it)” (Dear Neil Armstrong, 292-293).

Hansen’s first book of Armstrong letters, Dear Neil Armstrong, was issued as a hardcover, while the second one came out as a paperback. Hansen admits this seems awkward. “Both should have been issued in the same format with similar covers to make a handsome two-volume set,” said Hansen.

The grouping of letters is significant in Hansen’s two published volumes. He includes a section on religion, a subject even more popular in generating letters to NASA than UFOs. Indeed, of all the topics on which NASA received correspondence since the time of the Moon landing, religion in space generated the largest volume of mail, more than four times as much as any other issue (Kendrick Oliver, To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957-1975, 137-138).

Hansen’s two volumes of letters is an excellent collection of primary source material from the public on a man who was known to have been intensely private. Poring through the nearly 1,000 letters spread throughout both volumes can be challenging. Hansen acknowledges this and notes that the one-line quotes, lifted from each letter writer that he uses, help separate each letter so they don’t all appear to run together. This along with chapter headings introducing each letter category help the reader more easily sift through them without getting bogged down. An alphabetical index to both volumes listing the names of the writers would have made it somewhat easier for researchers to quickly find a particular letter. The detailed annotations that Hansen includes are a welcome addition as they provide helpful context for many of the letters. These annotations along with his choice of letters reveal the author’s in-depth understanding of Armstrong that came from researching and writing his First Man biography. “Some of my annotations to the letters are pretty substantive,” said Hansen. “I was able to not only contextualize it for readers but also expand on my own interpretation of things and my presentation of Neil’s life after 1969.” The two-volume series of letters ends in a very somber note as Hansen provides an exclusive inside accounting of the way in which Armstrong died.

Of the two volumes of Armstrong’s letters that Hansen produced, I found the thematic coverage of the second volume, A Reluctant Icon, more interesting. Whereas the first volume includes a lot of hero worship, the second volume contains subjects that were more illuminating. These include chapters on religion and belief, conspiracy theories, and UFOlogy. Following this Hansen includes chapters containing correspondence with NASA officials, fellow astronauts and notables in aviation, and Armstrong’s personal experiences in the corporate world.

As mentioned earlier, while Hansen worked on his biography, Armstrong never gave him full access to his papers. “He said, ‘Well, you tell me what you want and I’ll look for it,’ and he was very generous in terms of giving me time for interviews and letting me see some materials, but he never let me loose in his office. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s my stuff. Look at whatever you want,’” said Hansen.

I asked Hansen if he thought his biography would have been different if he had full access to all of Armstrong’s letters while writing it. “That’s a good question and a tough one to answer. I think it really wouldn’t have changed any of the major analysis in the book or my characterization of him. I think the letters add a lot of dimension and would have enriched the book’s later chapters that focused on his life after leaving NASA because that is the time period where most of the letters come from.”

While Hansen notes that access to Armstrong’s letters may not have affected its overall theme, it would have changed the length of First Man. He explained that his editors thought his chapters after Apollo were too lengthy and they would most certainly have objected to any additional material being added. “I would have been so tempted to do a lot more with the post-Apollo 11 years of his life that other parts of my book would have had to have been reduced to accommodate that.” As it was, Hansen explained that when his book came out, it was cut down quite a bit, especially the early years of his life, and the post-1969 chapters. “I’ve always thought that some day I would go back and produce a director’s cut of the book.”

I also asked Hansen if anything in the Armstrong letters really surprised him since first working on First Man. “I thought I’d gotten to know him pretty well by the time I finished writing First Man,” said Hansen. “Going through his letters years after my book was published I found nothing that really changed me.”

In comparing the Glenn and Armstrong books Hansen said, “I think Neil would have been very concerned about publishing any of his letters. I can’t even imagine him doing it. Glenn was involved in picking his letters for his book himself. Armstrong wouldn’t have wanted any part of it. There are also the broader cultural differences in public attitudes toward the astronauts in 1964 versus today. The Mercury Seven were great American heroes but we know from the way LIFE magazine covered them and from the way NASA wanted the astronauts and their families to be portrayed that a lot of inside stories about them wasn’t available to anybody back then. NASA had an image that they wanted for their astronauts and they protected that because they and the program were vulnerable.”

In addition, Hansen pointed out, “I don’t think that Glenn would have gotten letters covering the kind of negative and conspiracy leaning tripe that Neil received. The kind of negative stuff that Neil got comes with the amount of money that was being spent on Apollo, the conspiracy theories, the disbelief that we actually did go to the Moon, and Neil’s own reticence in terms of being a public figure compared to John’s more gregarious nature.” Hansen concluded, “The nature of the correspondence to Armstrong was fundamentally different from that received by Glenn not just because he was the first man on the Moon but because the whole culture of what society thought about the astronauts had changed so much since the early days of Project Mercury.”

Glenn never really disguised who he was nor did he have any motive to do so. He was upfront, gregarious, open, and receptive. He never met a stranger who he didn’t like so when people wondered about Glenn or wrote to him, there was nothing hidden or unknown because the public saw that he was accessible from the start. “Neil on the other hand was kind of a sphinx,” said Hansen. “People didn’t know what to make of him. “As a result, a lot of the letters to Neil, people had to share more of themselves because Neil never shared with them things like ‘What did you think about this…’ ‘What were you doing then’ and ‘Don’t you have some secrets to the universe now that you’ve been to the Moon and back?’ ‘You must have some understanding of God that…’ People had questions for Neil that they never would have asked Glenn.”

The collection of John Glenn letters by itself is not that revealing. However, when compared to the Armstrong letters it offers an interesting comparison and contrast into how the public responded to two men with totally different personalities. “As I pored through the mountains of correspondence from Armstrong I got more sympathetic about him,” concludes Hansen. “Given who he was, he did his best to handle all of these inquiries. You can just see him writing responses to some of these letters, holding his head and trying to bite his tongue. I think more than anything, what Armstrong’s letters show was that he stayed true to himself. Even in responding to fan mail, he could not be anybody but who he was. He did not take another persona. The epigram that I use in the front of First Man is the Joseph Campbell quote, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” I think his letters show readers that fact even better than what my biography could.”


About the Books

SPACE 3.0/Quest receives commissions for purchases made through the links below (learn more).

Title: Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind
Editor: James R. Hansen
Publisher: Purdue University Press
Year: 2019
ISBN: 978-15575387-4-1
Pages: 400

Title: A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong
Editor: James R. Hansen
Publisher: Purdue University Press
Year: 2020
ISBN:  978-15575396-9-4
Pages: 400

Title: “P.S. I Listened to Your Heart Beat” Letters to John Glenn
Author: John Glenn
Publisher: World Book Encyclopedia Science Service
Year: 1964
Pages: 248

 


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