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Review: 'Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight' never quite reaches escape velocity

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"Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight" (St. Martin's Press), by Jay Barbree

This is not a definitive biography of the man who first walked on the moon. It's not even authorized by his family, whatever that means.

But it certainly should be.

There's not a negative word about America's space hero in Jay Barbree's new book. Barbree — the NBC News space correspondent who has covered every manned U.S. mission — was friends with Armstrong for decades. The book draws on their conversations as well as hundreds of other interviews and NASA transcripts to recount Armstrong's entire "life of flight," from combat missions in North Korea to those historic lunar steps and beyond.

So it's a little disappointing that it's not more of a page turner.

There have been so many books and movies and TV specials about the space race that a lot of what Barbree recounts feels retread. If you don't know about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, this is a fine book to spend a few days reading, but space buffs searching for something they didn't know about that remarkable era may be left wanting.

Here's Barbree's ho-hum description of Armstrong's out-of-this-world moment:

"'I'm going to step off the LM now,' he said, lifting his left boot over the footpad and setting it down in moon dust that shot up and outward in a fine spray — a spray that lasted only a quick instant in the absence of an atmosphere. 'That's one small step for man,' Neil said with a momentary pause, 'One giant leap for mankind.'"

To be fair, Armstrong was a famously reserved man. "Quiet hero" was the phrase that appeared most often in his obituary. And while that trait is worthy of admiration in an age when the next space traveller is likely to be a self-promoting billionaire, it just doesn't make for that exciting a book subject.

Barbree's writing perks up when he describes flight, a subject he feels as passionately about as Armstrong did.

Here's his description of Apollo 11 at liftoff: "Birds flew for safety, wildlife fled for shelter, and the mighty rocket's shock waves slammed into the chests of the million-plus, rattling their bones and fluttering their skin and clothes."

The book ends on a bit of a down note, recounting the relatively sorry state of NASA in the 21st century. This December will mark 42 years since an American last walked on the moon. At its best, Barbree's book reminds readers of all that led up to that first step.

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