What First Man Got Right About Neil Armstrong

I recently had the privilege of seeing an advance screening of the new movie about Neil Armstrong, First Man. It is almost certainly is the most accurate fictional depiction of human spaceflight in the 1960s ever made. The care of the director, Damien Chazelle, and his team to respect the integrity of historical events is obvious to anyone with a solid knowledge of the Gemini and Apollo programs. That was in significant part due to the involvement of James R. Hansen of Auburn University, who wrote the biography on which the movie is based, as well as other space history experts. First Man does take a few liberties with the facts, but they are mostly done to make the events of the program more comprehensible to the non-expert, or to advance the film’s interpretation of Armstrong’s character.

Apollo 11 Mission image - Neil A. Armstrong inside the Lunar Module after E, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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Although the book covers Armstrong’s full life, the movie for quite practical reasons treats only 1961 to 1969. First Man opens with one of Armstrong’s flights in the X-15 rocket plane, one in which he got into some trouble because (the film seems to suggest) he was distracted by the cancer of his daughter, Karen, who would die at the age of 2 not long afterward. It then takes us through becoming a NASA astronaut and a series of accidents and near-fatal incidents that highlighted how dangerous it was to be in the program at that point.

The prime crew for Gemini IX, led by Armstrong’s friend Elliott See, was killed in a plane crash in early 1966, shortly before Armstrong commanded Gemini VIII. That mission became the first American human spaceflight to be forced into an emergency landing. He and his co-pilot, David Scott, had just executed the world’s first docking with another space vehicle when a thruster on Gemini VIII stuck open. Their spacecraft went into wild gyrations, forcing an undocking from the Agena rocket, and then into a violent roll that threatened to kill them. Thanks to Armstrong’s astonishing coolness under pressure, even as the spin threatened to make them black out, he told Scott to turn off all the regular thrusters and then used the reentry ones to stop the roll. That invoked a mission rule that required them to land quickly.

Less than a year later, on January 27, 1967, the first crew that was to fly an Apollo mission died in a fire during a spacecraft ground test at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Among those killed were Armstrong’s friend and next-door neighbor, Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Two years later, while practicing for Apollo 11, Armstrong had to eject from a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle that was going out of control. It speaks to the director’s attention to accuracy that he had a full-scale replica of the strange, spider-like vehicle built and then deliberately crashed it to film the scene. First Man ends with Apollo 11, emphasizing the tense, alarm-interrupted landing and some of Armstrong’s private moments on the Moon.

The toll of this period on Armstrong’s relationship with his wife Janet is the movie’s central thread. He is played by Ryan Gosling and she by Claire Foy and they expertly act out how the stress, and Armstrong’s reaction to it—becoming ever more tight-lipped and withdrawn—drives a wedge between them. And the movie doesn’t even depict another near-disaster: in the middle of 1966, the Armstrongs were forced to flee to the Whites in the middle of the night because their house began to burn. I was waiting for that scene, but if they filmed it, Chazelle decided to leave it out, presumably because there were enough negative events already in the final cut.

Apollo 11 Crew, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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In fact, the deliberate artistic choice to focus intensively on Armstrong’s experience and the effects on him and his wife tends to make most other characters marginal. Only Ed White and chief astronaut Deke Slayton emerge as somewhat fleshed-out characters. Buzz Aldrin appears mostly only in the Apollo 11 scenes and command module pilot Mike Collins, who stayed in orbit around the Moon, barely appears and is only mentioned a couple of times. This may offend some who want a fuller treatment of that mission, but the director and his actors only had two hours to cover eight years, and that narrow focus was a way to make the movie compelling and coherent.

The most noticeable alterations of historical facts were, for me at least, the origins of Gemini VIII’s first space docking, and the scenes of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and Moon walk. Armstrong was the backup commander of Gemini V (his co-pilot was Elliott See) and someone tells him that he will be the commander of VIII, which will probably be the first docking mission. That leaves out the complicated story of Gemini VI and VII. On October 25, 1965, Gemini VI’s Agena failed to get into orbit, which led to a historic December 15 rendezvous of the two Gemini spacecraft instead. But explaining all that in First Man would have been confusing and time-consuming.

The Apollo 11 landing scenes heighten the stress of the computer alarms during the descent by including fictional audio warnings, and the crater and boulder field that Armstrong had to fly over to land are much deeper and more dramatic than they were in reality. During the Moon walk, Armstrong leaves behind a memento of his daughter Karen on the lunar surface, something Ryan Gosling apparently wanted to do to humanize the character. There is no historical evidence that this happened, although it cannot be ruled out. But Neil Armstrong was such a straight arrow about what he took to the Moon and so buttoned-up within himself that this gesture seems unlikely. His ex-wife Janet (who divorced him much later) says that he probably did not even take anything onboard for their two sons.

President Nixon Visits Apollo 11 Crew in Quarantine, 1969, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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In attention to historical accuracy, First Man compares favorably to Apollo 13 (1995), Ron Howard’s well-known film about the lunar-landing mission that failed. That movie also made massive and expensive efforts to duplicate spacecraft cockpits, simulators, and launches. Several liberties and simplifications in Apollo 13 are taken for the sake of the plot, like having the Saturn V rocket roll out to the launch pad only a couple days before liftoff and exaggerating the gyrations of the spacecraft during the oxygen-tank explosion and subsequent maneuvers. In contrast, the undeniably entertaining and inspiring Hidden Figures (2016) distorted the facts of America’s original human spaceflight program, Mercury, in ways that were often unnecessary. One example is perpetuating the myth that John Glenn’s first American orbital mission in February 1962 was cut short by spacecraft problems—a story that is also in the original Mercury movie, The Right Stuff (1983), based on the Tom Wolfe book. Both had screenwriters and directors who were willing to throw historical accuracy aside to make an entertaining movie.

In sum, First Man is entertaining, compelling, and like Apollo 13, quite scrupulous in its attention to the facts of US human spaceflight in the 1960s. I highly recommend it.

Credits: Story

by: Michael Neufeld
Space History Department

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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