First things first: If you’re interested in space, don’t hesitate before seeing the new movie about Neil Armstrong’s life, First Man. I’m passionate about space history, NASA, commercial space, and the whole enterprise of trying to push things and people off this planet and deeper into space. And I absolutely loved this movie. It opens Friday across the United States.
This is a movie of two parts. The first storyline pertains to Armstrong and his family life, his relationship with his wife Janet, a daughter named Karen who died young, and his two boys, Rick and Mark. This part of the film is often a bit melancholy, as Armstrong struggles with Karen’s death and how to communicate the risks of his profession with his family. The humanity of these scenes will appeal to some, but not others seeking a purely action movie. I found the scenes between Ryan Gosling, who does a fine job as Armstrong, and Claire Foy as his wife, to be compelling.
The second part of the movie should appeal to almost everyone. There are some stunning action scenes in the movie that bring to life some of the most dynamic moments in Armstrong’s life most of us have only read about: his career as an X-15 pilot, his near-fatal Gemini 8 spaceflight, and, of course, the Apollo 11 lunar landing. In putting these moments on a big screen, and making a concerted effort to relate them faithfully, First Man feels like a grand gift to space fans.
Dramatic flight scenes
Most people living today probably don’t even remember the X-15—an incredible machine. This was a rocket-powered aircraft built by the Air Force and NASA, which flew in the 1960s as high as 107.8km. For the era, it had a remarkably powerful 70,000-pound thrust engine, which was a monster for an aircraft that weighed just 14,600 pounds.
In the movie, Armstrong is flying a mission (he flew seven, reaching a maximum speed of Mach 5.7) during the most turbulent weather recorded during an X-15 flight. It is a rough ride, all the way up to the edge of space, and one of the dramatic moments comes when he bounces off the atmosphere. The film portrays this vividly, as a rattling, noisy, violent experience as one might expect from an airplane attached to a rocket engine. It seems masterfully portrayed.
Of the 12 people who flew the X-15 airplane more than half a century ago, just one of the pilots is alive today, Joe Engle. He was a consultant on the film. (The film consulted with numerous astronauts, engineers, and historians to ensure accuracy when possible. There are some liberties taken, such as the clouds during the X-15 flight. These were needed to show the dramatic speed of the X-15, but the rocket plane would not have flown on such a cloudy day). Ars spoke to Engle on Thursday and asked him about the depiction of Armstrong’s flight in the movie.
“I never had a launch day that turbulent,” he said. “But I did hear from many people that that day was, by far, the most turbulent they had ever seen in the program at launch conditions.” As for the exhilarating action scene, no, it doesn’t compare to the real thing, Engle said. That was truly spectacular. However, he added, “I think it’s as close as you can get.”
The other service First Man performs is a depiction of NASA’s Gemini space program. This challenging and ultimately successful sequence of missions led NASA to catch up to the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, surpass its great adversary, and get the bugs out of critical tasks such as rendezvous and docking so that Apollo could deposit humans on the Moon.
The Gemini 8 mission, commanded by Armstrong with David Scott as pilot, sought to rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle in low-Earth orbit. It very nearly led to the nation’s first fatalities in space as the Gemini spacecraft spun out of control. Only level-headed action by Armstrong, in the seconds before he would have blacked out, saved the spacecraft from certain doom. This scene is vividly rendered. Never before have we seen such a realistic depiction of a Gemini flight and understood what it must have been like for two people crammed into such a small spacecraft.
Finally, the Moon landing is arresting, properly showing the tension surrounding the Lunar Module’s declining fuel levels, the unexpected field of boulders, and the uncertainty of landing upon an unknown surface. There is some melodrama here, not entirely consistent with history, but overall the Moon landing is emotional and captivating. (Also, forget the politically-driven hysteria about First Man being anti-American. It is entirely pro-American and faithful to the actual history. It seems this controversy most likely this was stirred up by Russian bots as some sort of sad “revenge” 50 years later).
One criticism I’ve heard from several people who have watched the film concerns the depiction of Armstrong. We never really get a sense of what he is thinking, what his motivations were. The truth is, Armstrong was a quiet, thoughtful, and brave engineer. He was not expressive. He sought to do his job, do it well and not revel in any of the glory.
Asked if he thought this was the Armstrong he knew from the X-15 era, and later the Apollo program when both were NASA astronauts, Engle did not hesitate. “Oh I sure do,” he said. “He was very quiet. Very methodical in his preparation for flights. I never saw him get rattled or lose his cool or anything.”
If anything, the movie undersells the generosity of the man with his time for his fellow colleagues and people interested in space. I am on an email list with a bunch of old-timers in the Houston area who worked on the Apollo program, mostly engineers. In recent weeks they have been sharing Armstrong stories. (He hated to exercise, apparently). What comes through is that Armstrong never balked at sharing a kind word, or spending time with people who wanted to meet the man, had questions, or wrote to him. He was unsparingly kind, gentle, and humble.
These are qualities I would want in the first human to walk on another world, even if they don’t always translate to dramatic cinema. These are qualities, frankly, that I’d welcome more of in this world, today.
Listing image by First Man movie