What Does It Feel Like to Be Told You’ll Be the First Man on the Moon?

A new book describes the conversation when NASA boss Deke Slayton told Neil Armstrong he would lead Apollo 11

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong (L) and Buzz Aldrin prepare for an EVA training session, watched by Deke Slayton (R) in this undated handout photo courtesy of NASA. NASA/Reuters/Corbis

Not long after the 1968 launch of Apollo 8, while Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell were riding through space on their way to the Moon, Deke Slayton, NASA's Director of Flight Crew Operations, pulled Neil Armstrong aside for a brief conversation of astounding historical significance.

Slayton had just decided to make Armstrong to commander of Apollo 11.

Over at Scientific American they're running an excerpt from Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight, a new book by NBC's space reporter Jay Barbree—a journalist who first started reporting on the manned spaceflight program in 1961 and covered every manned U.S. mission since. That excerpt contains this fascinating conversation—the one in which Slayton told Armstrong he could command the first mission to land on the Moon.

The early space era was a time full of unknowns. Decisions would come in the form of “if... then,” not “when.” This sense of uncertainty permeanted the conversation between Armstrong and Slayton, as reported by Barbree, who at the time was in Houston reporting on the Apollo 8 mission. The conversation took place in the Mission Control room:

Deke Slayton saw Neil and thought this would be a good time to talk about his next assignment.  He came over and pulled up a chair.

“Got a minute, Neil?”

“Sure Boss, anytime.”

“Been thinking about your next assignment.”

“That’s great.”

“There’s lots of if, ands, and buts,” Deke said flatly, “but we’re thinking about you commanding Apollo-Eleven.”

“That wouldn’t make me mad,” Neil grinned.

Deke leaned forward and in an almost whisper explained there was no way of knowing what Apollo-Eleven’s mission would be.  But, if Apollo-Eight’s current flight to orbit the moon was a success, if the Lunar Module could pass muster in its Earth orbital first flight with Apollo-Nine, and if Apollo-Ten could return to lunar orbit and its Lunar Module could descend to within 8.4 miles of the moon, then Apollo-Eleven could be the first to land.

Neil wasn’t easily stunned, but he was for a long moment.

According to Florida Today, Barbree spent 20 years trying to convince Armstrong to work together on a book. Eventually Armstrong agreed, and not long after the late astronaut's death in 2012 Barbree decided to go ahead with the project, a book that took him nearly two years to report and write.

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