(This article was first published in Friday in October 2006)

Eleven days before the launch of Apollo 11 - the spacecraft that was to take three men into space, two of whom would set foot on the moon - tension was reaching fever pitch almost all over the world. Would the lift-off be glitch-free? Would the spacecraft go where no man had gone before? Would two men really set foot on a satellite in space? What if they were to be stranded there, unable to return?

Apart from these and a host of other questions, the press was also curious as to what Neil Armstrong would say when he first stepped on the earth's only natural satellite. "I'm wondering, " said a press reporter, at a news conference addressed by the Apollo 11 crew, "if - you have decided on something suitably historical and memorable to say when you perform this symbolic act of stepping foot on the moon for the first time?"

The reporter was not the only one waiting with bated breath to hear what Armstrong had in mind to say when he took that giant step. Inside Nasa, speculation was rife about the first words he would utter when he stepped off Eagle, the craft that would touch down on the moon. In fact, things got so bubbling hot that the head of Nasa's public affairs office had to issue a terse internal memo that questioned Nasa personnel to the effect: did King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain tell Christopher Colombus what to say when he reached the New World?

Armstrong took a moment to consider the question, then replied simply: "No, I haven't." Hard as it may be to believe, that was the plain truth, says Dr James Hansen, author of First Man, the first and only official biography of Neil Armstrong.

"The most important part of the flight in my mind was the landing, '' Armstrong told Hansen recently. "I thought that if there was any statement to make of importance, it would be whatever occurred [to me] right after the landing, when the engine stopped." This incident, which Hansen narrates in First Man, vividly portrays the kind of person Armstrong was when the world's spotlight was on him, and now, close to four decades since he took the momentous step, still is - intensely private.

At the peak of his career as space flight commander, his only thoughts in the run-up to the moon programme were how best to complete the mission and return to earth. Armstrong detested spending valuable time on matters that were not absolutely crucial to the mission, says Hansen, in his book that portrays Armstrong, warts and all.

Not surprisingly, the pre-launch press conference was not the only time reporters tried to get Armstrong to philosophise about the historical significance of the moon landing. On another occasion, a reporter asked him: "What particular gain do you see in going to the moon for yourselves - and for mankind? Do you think that eventually the moon will become part of the civilised world?"

Armstrong deftly sidestepped the questions, saying: "The objective of the flight is precisely to take man to the moon, make a landing there and return ... How we will use that information in the centuries to come, only history can tell." Getting Armstrong to answer questions on the human dimensions of space travel was no easy task. In fact, getting him to talk on subjects other than the mechanics of the mission was in itself a Herculean task.

Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walks on the surface of the moon. Neil A. Armstrong took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera
NASA

To quote author Norman Mailer, Armstrong "surrendered words about as happily as a hound allowed meat to be pulled out of his teeth''. And he should know. Mailer, with credentials from Life magazine, was part of the gaggle of wordsmiths who attended press meets organised by Nasa prior to the launch. Armstrong, says Mailer, "had the sly privacy of a man whose thoughts may never be read''.

Then how did Hansen manage to get the man to open up to him and agree to an official biography?

It was not easy, he admits in an exclusive e-mail interview from Alabama, where he is professor of history at Auburn University.

"It took me close to 33 months, innumerable telephone calls, letters and e-mails and a face-to-face meeting before he gave me the thumbs up,'' says Hansen.

In June 2002, Armstrong signed a formal agreement naming Hansen as his biographer. The approval meant unprecedented access to not only Armstrong and his private papers but also his family, friends, colleagues - many of whom, says Hansen in his book, in deference to Armstrong, had resisted speaking openly about him before.

But what made Hansen write a biography on Armstrong now, close to 40 years since he and his colleague Buzz Aldrin made history?

"Most of the early American astronauts had written memoirs or worked with authors to get their autobiographies or biographies written, '' says Hansen, "but not Neil. I was concerned that he might go to his grave without sharing his full story.''

And it is a good thing that Armstrong decided to share his story with Dr Hansen, a man whose credentials are impeccable. An expert on science and technology and its impact on society, Hansen was also historian for Nasa. He has done a study on the Apollo programme's lunar landing method in addition to authoring eight acclaimed books on the history of aerospace. These achievements were to stand him in good stead when he approached Armstrong to write his biography.

"He could tell from what he read in my previous books, and from what I told him in preliminary conversations, that I would deal with his life as it actually was and not project meanings on to it that were not really there.''

Despite the mission being a highly scientific one and which at the time (the 1960s) was on the cutting edge of technology, there is little technobabble in First Man. But at the same time, it is not to say that the technology areas have been dumbed down. So effortlessly has Hansen handled the subject that even those who are not interested in the technological aspects of the space flight will willingly join him in the ride to the stars - and beyond.

So what got a professor of history interested in the lives of astronauts?

"Growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, I became fascinated by the night sky, especially watching artificial satellites like Echo passing noticeably overhead. As a boy, I also watched all of the space shots on TV, '' Hansen says.

The reason he chose to write about Armstrong was because "Neil seemed so different from the rest of the early astronauts. Also, a mystique had grown up around him, both because he was the first to step off on to another heavenly body and because he had lived such a private life afterwards''.

Two other qualities that piqued Hansen's interest were Armstrong's "sense of privacy and his talents as an engineer".

Once Hansen got the go-ahead from Armstrong, he fell headlong into his passion. In all, Dr Hansen had close to 50 hours of interviews with Armstrong.

He also met his first wife, friends and several others who were associated with Armstrong at some time in his life to get a better picture of the man about whom we know so little.

Of course, it was not easy going for Hansen. He got to experience firsthand how difficult it was to get Armstrong to talk about his family and personal life. "Neil is much more comfortable talking about technical matters, '' he says. "This has been true since he was a boy. He once said that talking about people is a third-rate subject of conversation. Although humorous, I think he actually means it." It took Hansen close to four years to complete the book since he signed the formal agreement with Armstrong.

"It is a testament to the integrity of the man that he did not interfere with my authorial freedoms, '' Hansen says.

"Once he gave me the go-ahead, he helped to make sure my facts were straight but he did not try to change or influence my interpretations.'' But did he, as a biographer, portray Neil Armstrong, warts and all? "I do, indeed, '' stresses Hansen. "As husband and father, Neil has admitted to his limitations. He gave so much to his career that he shortchanged his loved ones.

"He was also not a perfect pilot, because no such person has ever existed." Apart from getting a peek into the private and personal world of Armstrong, another hurdle Hansen faced was in demystifying the moon trip and the technicalities involved.

The author was determined that the book should have a mass audience and not be restricted to just a certain section of the public. Achieving this "was quite difficult'', he admits.

And there were various reasons.

"In the United States, science education has been going so quickly downhill in the past few decades, '' says Hansen. "Compared to China today, where 50 per cent of college students graduate in science or engineering, less than 20 per cent of American college graduates have majored in science or engineering.

"American society, in many ways, is growing more and more illiterate about science and technology, despite their critical importance in everyday life, '' bemoans Hansen.

"A significant and growing number of young people in America do not believe that the moon landings even happened, [They are convinced] the [moon landings] were some sort of hoax or conspiracy pulled off by the US government, '' he says.

But that is just one of a score of conspiracy theories still circulating about the moon mission. Some people believe that the first lunar landing was faked in a Hollywood studio.

Such rumours touch a raw nerve in Hansen. "I have grown increasingly frustrated and impatient with those who say the moon landings were not real, when there is overwhelming, totally overwhelming evidence, that they were, '' he argues. "Not believing in the moon landings is equivalent to not believing the earth is a sphere.'' "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind."

The first sentence Neil Armstrong radioed earth when he stepped off Eagle's ladder and set foot on the powdery surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, may be only a minor facet of the first manned mission to the moon, but it is one which continues to remain in the minds of people decades later not just because it was a human voice coming from another heavenly object, but because it proved that man could push the boundaries of science further and quite literally take the risks to go where no man has gone before.

"Many, or perhaps, most of the leaps [science has made since Armstrong first set foot on the moon] have not had much to do with the moon landings, '' says Hansen. "Our robotic probes [sent into space], on the other hand, have resulted in wonderful new insights into the nature of our solar system, galaxy and the universe ?'' Would Hansen like to see more such missions? Oh yes, he says.

"The reason I'd like to see us return to the moon is to build an astronomical observatory on the far side. The images from a telescope mounted on the dark side would bring pictures that are many times more fantastic than even those from Hubble, '' he believes.

Like they say, for some, even the moon is not enough.