For National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) chief historian Bill Barry, the feature film First Man, released worldwide this month, will provide a new myth, but he is used to those, including the one that astronaut Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon at all.
“I try not to worry too much about conspiracy theories, although it is, frankly, a consideration as we plan for Apollo’s 50th anniversary next summer,” Barry says during interviews at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre ahead of First Man’s release.
“Nasa has a lot of social media accounts. One is the @nasahistory account on Twitter and I can tell you that every single time we post a picture of someone walking on the surface of the moon, someone will come back and say it was fake. But if you argue with conspiracy theorists [they think] your argument is part of a cover-up, so it’s an infinite loop and you can’t get at that.”
Barry is familiar with the explanation that film director Stanley Kubrick created the fake landings. He points out that the moon looks completely different in the live broadcasts from 1969 than in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
One aspect of Armstrong that does seem agreed by all is that he was a man of few words. So few, in fact, that he famously missed out a crucial “a” in the most memorable sentence he ever spoke, as he took the last step from Apollo 11’s lunar landing module, Eagle, on to the surface of the moon. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he uttered as millions of people around the world watched transfixed by what was, at the time, the world’s longest live television broadcast.
“I’m not particularly articulate,” Armstrong later told his biographer, Auburn University, Alabama, emeritus professor of history James Hansen.
“’For people who have listened to me for hours on the radio communication tapes, they know I left a lot of syllables out,” Armstrong told Hansen, who reports the conversation in his book First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong. “I think that reasonable people will realise that I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and that certainly the ‘a’ was intended because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense. So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable.”
History should indeed grant the leeway. As he spoke on July 20, 1969, Armstrong was in the act of becoming the first human to set foot on a celestial body. His place in history was assured even if the unthinkable happened and he and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were unable to get back to the command module that Michael Collins was orbiting around the moon, waiting for them.
All astronauts in the Apollo programme knew the risks. For this particular occasion a message, presumably not shared with Aldrin and Armstrong beforehand, had been prepared in case the unthinkable happened.
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” the sombre message began.
“These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”
It never needed to be read; Aldrin and Armstrong made it back to the command module and to Earth, for Armstrong, in particular, to be feted around the globe and to bear the burden of fame until his death, aged 82, in 2012.
He declined probably thousands of media interviews and appearances. Interviewing him, until he agreed to co-operate with Hansen’s biography, was hard work.
Historian Douglas Brinkley quizzed Armstrong in 2001 and put to him: “As the day clock was ticking for take-off, would you every night, or most nights, just go out quietly and look at the moon? I mean, did it become something like ‘my goodness’?”
“No, I never did that,” replied Armstrong.
Many of those involved in the making of First Man, including director Damien Chazelle, actor Ryan Gosling (Armstrong), scriptwriter Josh Singer and Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), were not born when the Apollo missions were occurring.
“I knew the textbook narrative of the mission to the moon – the success story of an iconic achievement, but little else,” admits Chazelle.
“Once I started digging, I grew astounded by the sheer madness and danger of the enterprise, the number of times it circled failure as well as the toll it took on all involved.”
As a historian, Barry is familiar with the bright and shiny version of the Apollo missions.
“From the perspective of 2018, people tend to look back and go, ‘Oh, Nasa had an infinite budget, everybody in America was in favour of the space programme, it was one triumph after another, the Soviets dropped out and it really wasn’t a race to the moon anyway’.
“Today, we have an image of astronauts as knights in shining armour. They are bulletproof, they are magic, they have the perfect family and here’s Neil Armstrong doing his pizza-chef thing posing for Life magazine [in March 1969] with this perfect background story.”
In reality, says Barry, Nasa’s budget was already falling as the Apollo missions were under way, there was never unlimited public support and there was most definitely a race with the Soviets to land on the moon.
“These guys were under a lot of stress; they paid a price in terms of friends that they lost and marriages that broke up and other difficulties. I think it’s useful for people to see [in the film] that the same kinds of things we see today, with people under pressure and facing hard times, happened in Apollo.”
Nasa itself, with its contract with Life magazine to photograph the astronauts and their families, probably did more than anyone to create the image of the all-American heroes with perfect families.
As Barry alludes, the reality naturally was different, and the new film, although focusing on Nasa’s preparation for a moon landing, captures Armstrong’s personal story, while also contributing to new fiction.
As a pilot, including flying missions during the Korean War, a test pilot and then an astronaut, Armstrong’s life was punctuated by the deaths of his friends and colleagues. That did not stop with the Apollo programme. Apollo missions were designed to build up competence in engineering design and crew experience until Nasa felt ready to attempt the first lunar landing. The challenge had been set, in 1961, by US President John F Kennedy, who thought America could achieve it “before this decade is out”.
The programme began tragically when astronauts Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom were training in the command module of Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967. Preparing for a launch in the coming weeks, they were in the capsule in an atmosphere of 100% pure oxygen when a spark, probably from a wire that had frayed from technicians getting in and out of the capsule, ignited the module; it burst into flames, killing all three.
White and his wife, Pat, had been close in every sense to the Armstrongs. They were not only next-door neighbours in their new subdivision in Houston, but their wives supported each other through the fears and absences that the space programme generated. It was Janet Armstrong who was waiting outside the Whites’ house when Pat arrived back from her daughter’s ballet lesson to hear that “something had happened”.
But White was not Armstrong’s greatest loss. In the spring of 1961, Neil and Janet Armstrong’s younger child Karen, then aged two, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. She made it through Christmas that year but succumbed the following month. In his book, Hansen says that Armstrong was away on “work-related travel” in the final week of Karen’s life. She died on January 28, the day of the couple’s sixth wedding anniversary. The biography records that a family friend, Grace Walker, said that at Karen’s funeral, “Armstrong was very stoic and showed little emotion, ‘in contrast to Janet, who was visibly shaken’. Grace thought about hugging Neil but stopped herself. ‘I think he always felt like that wasn’t the thing to do. He was very tight emotionally.’”
Hansen continues, “People who knew Armstrong well indicated that Neil never once brought up the subject of his daughter’s illness and death. In fact, several of his closest working associates stated that they did not know that Neil ever had a daughter.”
By February 5, he was back at work and the following day, he was flying again.
“’It hurt Janet a lot’, Grace Walker recalled, ‘that Neil went right back to work’.”
There was further grief for the Armstrongs when, after Karen’s death, Janet woke one night smelling smoke. Their house was on fire. By then, they had a third child, Mark, aged 10 months, who was carried out of the house by his father. Armstrong had yelled at his older son Rick, six, to get out, too, but emerging with Mark, he realised that Rick was still inside. He later told his wife that the longest journey he ever made was going back into the burning house, fearing what he would find. Rick was huddled in his bedroom. Armstrong carried him out.
Although the family were uninjured, the fire claimed most of their mementos and photos of their only daughter.
The film depicts Karen, when alive, wearing a small plastic bracelet. It also shows Armstrong on the moon, leaving Aldrin near the lunar module while Armstrong walks over to look at a big crater near where they had landed. He did this in real life, because he took the camera and photographed the crater, thinking it would be of interest to scientists back home who were eagerly awaiting photos, rocks and soil samples from the moon. However, the film shows him tossing Karen’s bracelet into the crater.
Almost certainly this did not happen. There are no anecdotes to suggest that Armstrong was a sentimental man or that he took any item of that nature to the moon. Asked before the mission if he would be taking personal items, he replied, “If I had a choice, I would take more fuel.” The scene is a reminder that, although based on a definitive, well-researched biography, shot in a gritty, documentary style and including a personal story that is little known beyond Hansen’s biography, First Man is a Hollywood movie, not a documentary.
This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.