ROCKET MAN

The bril­liant Neil Arm­strong movie

New Zealand Listener - - FRONT PAGE - By Joanne Black & Rus­sell Bail­lie

As next year’s 50th an­niver­sary of the Apollo 11 moon land­ings ap­proaches, those whose job it is to ex­plain his­tory are braced. 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.”

H“Once I started dig­ging, I grew as­tounded by the sheer mad­ness and dan­ger of the en­ter­prise.”

is­tory 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 al­lAmer­i­can 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 “workre­lated 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

Younger child Karen was di­ag­nosed with a ma­lig­nant brain tu­mour. She made it through Christ­mas that year but soon suc­cumbed.

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, well­re­searched 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.

Per­sonal toll: Ryan Gosling as Neil Arm­strong and Claire Foy as Janet Arm­strong in First Man.

Dan­ger­ous en­ter­prise: Gus Gris­som, Ed White and Roger Chaf­fee; right, Neil Arm­strong.

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