First things first: The 1969 moon landing actually did happen, despite the surprisingly long-lived conspiracy theory that the manned missions to the moon were fakes staged in Hollywood. However, the lunatics who believe otherwise are likely to feel bolstered by the meticulously recreated, entirely believable moon landing in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong’s journey to taking that giant leap for mankind.
Like its hero, First Man, based on James R. Hansen’s Armstrong biography of the same name, is understated, emotionally remote, and ambitious. But does it share his dedication to scrupulously accurate information? Below, we break down what’s fact and what’s artistic license.
The opening X-15 flight
The film starts off with a literal bang as NASA test pilot Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) breaks through the sound barrier in a X-15 “rocket plane.” He takes the plane to the limits of the Earth’s upper atmosphere from where he can see the darkness of space. He tries to begin his descent, but its controls do not respond. Keeping his cool instead of turning into a gibbering wreck as some of us might, he calculates he can use the plane’s rocket thrusters to help it fall back down into the atmosphere, and the plan works.
Armstrong was indeed one of the 12 pilots who tested the X-15. In the dense air of the Earth’s atmosphere the plane used conventional controls, but in the thin air above the atmosphere, the pilot was essentially flying in a vacuum, relying on hydrogen peroxide rocket engines to control the hybrid craft. Armstrong made the decision to keep the nose of the plane up as he came down from his peak altitude in order to test the G-force limiter, which was the purpose of his mission. However, the limiter didn’t kick in as he expected, and he was at first unable bring the nose of the plane down and descend. According to Michelle Evans, author of The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space, the incident was seen as arising from Armstrong’s concentrating on his instruments instead of following the procedure designed by the flight planners. This might have led to his being dropped from the X-15 program if he hadn’t been accepted by the Gemini program instead.
The death of Armstrong’s daughter
The movie suggests the pivotal emotional incident of Armstrong’s life was the death of his toddler daughter, Karen, known in the family as “Muffie,” who had brain cancer. He tried to deal with his fears by keeping detailed notes about her treatment during her illness and then going right back to work after her death, all the while displaying little emotion in public, grieving only when alone.
Karen Armstrong was indeed diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. After radiation treatment proved to be more than Karen could take, the Armstrongs took her home where she died from pneumonia a few months after diagnosis at age 2 and a half. According to Hansen, the film does not exaggerate the extent of Armstrong’s stiff upper lip. “People who knew Armstrong well,” he writes, “indicated Neil never once brought up the subject of his daughter’s illness and death. In fact, several of his closest working associates stated they did not know Neil ever had a daughter.”
Karen died on Jan. 28, 1962. Armstrong made test flights throughout her illness until Jan. 17, and he was back in the air on Feb. 6, a week after her funeral, taking no time off until May. “Neil kind of used work as an excuse,” Grace Walker, a family friend, told Hansen. “He got as far away from the emotional thing as he could. I know he hurt terribly over Karen. That was just his way of dealing with it.”
Gemini VIII flight
Selected to be the command pilot for the Gemini VIII mission, Armstrong supervises the experimental process of docking the Gemini space capsule with the separately launched Atlas-Agena rocket. The mission seems to be going well as the Gemini completes the complicated docking, but then the Agena goes into a spin, thrashing the capsule with it. At the same time, the crew’s radio contact with Mission Control goes out. Armstrong makes the decision to decouple, but the detached Gemini capsule starts rolling even faster, tumbling end-over-end as the crew’s vision starts to blur, and it looks like disaster looms. But as in the X-15 test flight, Armstrong keeps his cool as he hastily works out some calculations and fires the capsule’s nose thrusters to stabilize the craft. Back in radio contact, Mission Control tells the astronauts to complete one more orbit and then splash down.
This is pretty much what happened. According to a NASA account of the mission, it was later confirmed that a thruster in the Gemini’s orbital attitude and maneuvering system (OAMS) had started firing erratically, probably due to a short circuit. Armstrong’s quick thinking led him to turn off the OAMS system and instead use the thrusters of the capsule’s re-entry control system to regain control. As a result, for future missions, NASA added a master switch to Gemini spacecraft that enabled astronauts to turn off individual elements of a system not working properly.
Apollo 1 fire
As Armstrong attends a schmoozefest at the White House in January 1967, his fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), and his good friend Ed White (Jason Clarke) strap into the command module of Apollo 1 as part of a launch rehearsal test for the initial mission of the spacecraft that will take man all the way to the moon.* Confined to their seats and in cumbersome spacesuits, the astronauts are less than pleased to learn that the simulation will be delayed by a couple hours due to problems with the communications system. As the crew makes small talk and gripe, a small electrical spark ignites a fireball in a matter of seconds while the astronauts frantically but futilely try to open the cockpit door.
This depiction of one of the most traumatic events in the U.S. space program’s history is accurate. A subsequent investigation found that the cabin’s pure oxygen atmosphere meant that even a small spark could create an inferno, one fed by flammable material like foam pads and nylon netting. The pressure inside the sealed cockpit also made the door impossible to open, especially as it was designed to open inward. (These design flaws were corrected before the moon mission launches.) Ironically, Grissom had been tagged as the commander for the first moon landing mission, and had he lived, Armstrong would not be the name history remembers.
In 1971, the crew of Apollo 15 secretly carried a small statue of a fallen astronaut to the moon. They left it there as a memorial, along with a plaque bearing the names of the astronauts who had lost their lives in the course of space exploration.
Backlash to the Apollo program
In the film, the incident triggers a backlash to the Apollo program, with conservative members of Congress questioning the expenditure of so much federal money on something so unlikely to succeed, and critics from the left asking why Congress could find large sums to go to the moon but so little to help people in poverty (such critics are represented by an extended excerpt from Gil Scott-Heron’s proto-rap classic “Whitey on the Moon”).
In fact, while this is true, the space program had much less public support all along than the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia suggest. According to Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian, “throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space.”
Neil Armstrong’s marriage
The movie shows Janet Armstrong getting on with raising the family and supporting Neil despite his emotional compartmentalization, keeping his family separate from his work and spending far more time and energy on the latter. She finally rebels when she asks him to speak to their two boys before he heads off for the moon landing mission to warn them he might not come back.
This seems to be a fairly accurate representation of the relationship. Janet accepted that as the wife of an astronaut, “our lives were dedicated to a cause, to try to reach the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of 1969,” she told Life magazine in a post-landing interview. At the same time, she did resent Armstrong’s burying himself in his work to the exclusion of everything else. His leaving so little time for his family after Karen’s death, Walker told Hansen, made Janet “angry for a very long time.” Janet also confirmed that she had asked Neil to speak to the boys before the Apollo 11 launch, “but,” she told Hansen, “I don’t think that went very far.” As her son Mark told the Daily Mail, “Janet once said: ‘Silence is Neil’s answer. The word ‘no’ is an argument.’ ” The Armstrongs separated in 1990 and divorced in 1994.
By all accounts, the portrayal of Aldrin (Corey Stoll) as something of a loudmouth who speaks before he thinks is accurate. Writing in the Space Review, an observer of Aldrin’s speech to the 2017 Humans to Mars Summit (yes, there is such a thing) reported, “By now, anybody who has been in the space field or attended a few space conferences knows … that he is the space equivalent of Grandpa Simpson: once he starts talking, he won’t stop, and he doesn’t care if nobody is listening, or if he’s interrupting the conversation, or if he is inconveniencing others.” However, even this writer couldn’t deny that Aldrin is “brave” and even a “visionary,” noting that he recently became the oldest person ever to reach the South Pole.
Apollo 11 moon landing mission
There are two major dramatic events in what is otherwise a largely silent, almost dream-like depiction of the climactic mission. One is when an insufficient-fuel alarm goes off as the seconds until a mandatory abort count down. However, there is nowhere to land—first because of giant boulders on the surface and then because a huge crater looms beneath the craft. With barely two seconds to spare, Apollo 11 clears the canyon and lands on a smooth surface.
This first is depicted mostly as it actually happened, although in reality there were closer to 20 seconds to spare rather than two. Armstrong and co-pilot Aldrin overshot the predicted landing zone and, flying manually and low on fuel, were faced with a field full of truck-size boulders in contrast to the orbital maps that had indicated a smooth plain.
The other is the film’s emotional climax, when Armstrong, having taken Karen’s tiny baby bracelet with him on the voyage, releases it into space, a sign his lost daughter has always been with him. This, sadly, is pure invention. Hansen writes that the mementos Armstrong took to the moon include some medallions commemorating the Apollo 11 lunar mission, some of his wife’s pins, a piece of the Wright Brothers’ airplane, and his college fraternity pin, but that was all, adding “Armstrong took nothing else for family members—not even for his two boys” or “his daughter Karen.”
However, journalist Jay Barbree’s biography of Armstrong does suggest that Karen was in the astronaut’s thoughts. In Barbree’s account of the moon landing, Armstrong noticed a “baby crater” he named “Muffie’s Crater.” As the book describes it, “He stood there, remembering how Muffie would have loved sliding down into the pit. He had an overwhelming urge to do it for her. But then better judgment grabbed him. He settled for taking pictures and describing what he saw before heading back.”
Correction, Jan. 10, 2019: This article originally misstated that the fatal Apollo 1 test was for “the initial mission of the rocket that will take manned spacecraft all the way to the moon.” It was a test of the initial mission of the spacecraft, not the rocket. (The rocket had flown before.)