NASA Dryden (now Armstrong) photo, 1960: “NASA research pilot Neil Armstrong is seen here in the cockpit of the X-15 ship #1 (56-6670) after a research flight. Armstrong, who later became the first human to land on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, flew the X-15 twice in 1960 – both times in X-15 No. 1. The dates of his flights were 30 November and 9 December, 1960. Armstrong later flew five more times in the X-15, with his last flight occurring on 26 July 1962. This post-landing photo gives some indication of the large number of people and the amount of effort needed to secure the aircraft after a flight. The individual on the right side of the photo, facing the camera, is Bruce Peterson, who later flew the M2-F1, M2-F2, and HL-10 lifting bodies among other aircraft.”
Over a week has passed since First Man was released in the United States, and it continues to be the Number #1 topic of discussion among spaceflight enthusiasts. While the movie generally has been well-received by many, some viewers – particularly some male viewers – have taken offense at the understated, sometimes melancholy portrayal of Neil Armstrong by actor Ryan Gosling. Why does this portrayal engender such strong feelings within a particular group, and is it fair to depict an iconic hero and public figure as someone who could also be characterized as an “anti-hero”? (Note: minor movie and book spoilers included.)
The Astronaut as Human Being
Many male spaceflight fans (let me emphasize, not ALL male spaceflight fans) seem to be ill at easewith the idea of a NASA icon – a “hero” for the ages – experiencing human emotions, such as grief and its close cousin, regret. It’s clear that many have fetishized Neil Armstrong, in their minds, as sort of an indestructible “action figure,” someone who obediently walked on the Moon and smiled vapidly from the pages of Life magazine. The subheadings in Dwayne Day’s piece “Buzz Aldrin will not stop talking,” which was published in The Space Review in May 2017, asked the reader, “What do we owe our heroes? What do our heroes owe us?” Day would add, “Our heroes are rarely who we want them to be.”
First Man’s Armstrong – in the 2005 biography by James R. Hansen, and in the movie – might have been one of America’s finest aerospace engineers and pilots, but it’s not unreasonable to determine that he struggled with some demons of his own, even if they were tightly under lock and key. The blunt truth is he may not have been the hero everyone wanted him (or expected him) to be. He did battle with his profound feelings of grief, very understandably, following the 1962 death of his daughter, Karen. His workaholic habits helped to contribute to the eventual breakup of his marriage to his first wife, Jan. These aren’t personal criticisms of Armstrong in the least; the world’s First Man was certainly not the first human being – or astronaut – to lack perfection in certain areas of his life. In addition, other astronaut autobiographies underscore that a rocky core of grief lies at the center of the Apollo program:
- Donn Eisele’s recently released Apollo Pilot discusses his emotions of grief surrounding the Apollo 1 tragedy, the horrific launchpad deaths of its three astronauts, and his extreme anger at some of the NASA managers he viewed as supremely culpable for the fire. Moreover, he does mention he had a young son, Matthew, who made “us all laugh – and cry.” Matthew, who had Down Syndrome, died of leukemia shortly before his Apollo 7 flight in 1968.
- Al Worden’s Falling to Earth goes into great detail about the sad breakup of his first marriage due in part to his hectic career; Worden then saw that same career publicly destroyed in 1972, victim of a scandal he had little real involvement in. He painfully related in the book, “I’d arrived in Houston six years earlier feeling like I’d gained the greatest job in the world. I left wondering if life were still worth living.”
- Buzz Aldrin’s autobiographies – most notably 1973’s Return to Earth – shed light upon his battles with depression and alcoholism, which were spurred in part by the suicide of his mother.
It bears mentioning that some are very uncomfortable with the idea of their “heroes” experiencing sadness and grief, both emotions that are very closely aligned to fear. This leads to further analysis of the movie, and how it subtly tears apart the myth of the bulletproof, invincible astronaut.
The Myth of the “Macho” Neil Armstrong
We first meet Neil Armstrong in First Man still attached to the bomber that will soon release his X-15 for powered flight. He is faceless at the very beginning of the movie, but we hear his heavy breathing denoting his preparations for what turns out to be a less than “routine” (whatever routine is in aerospace engineering) flight. When colleague Joe Walker asks how he’s doing after landing, he mutters a non-committal “okay,” giving no indication of fighter jock swagger or posturing. The movie makes it clear from the very beginning that First Man isn’t the story of an alpha male shrewdly planning his next career move, or thinking about giving his wife “bragging rights” by taking her jewels to the Moon. He’s a young man thinking about his daughter, his family, and doing a good job at work.
Neil Armstrong wasn’t cut from the same mold as, say, Pete Conrad or Gene Cernan (which is slightly ironic, since he got along very well with both astronauts). Fellow astronaut Alan Bean related in Hansen’s First Man just how much Armstrong stood apart from his colleagues, especially after his infamous May 6, 1968 ejection from an LLTV just an instant before it crashed and exploded. When Bean asked Armstrong if he had bailed out of the vehicle an hour previously, Armstrong simply responded, “Yeah, I did.” In Bean’s words:
If it had been Pete Conrad, everybody would have rushed down [to his office], because Pete would’ve regaled them with a great story. I don’t think it was that Neil was so extraordinarily cooler than the other guys. But, offhand, I can’t think of another person, let alone another astronaut, who would have just gone back to his office after ejecting a fraction of a second before getting killed. He never got up at an all-pilots meeting and told us anything about it… He was so different than other people.
What do our heroes owe us? First Man – both the book and the movie – showed us that in Armstrong’s case, our “hero” was, in fact, just a normal guy with real-life concerns who happened to become one of the most famous people in the world. Perhaps some are uncomfortable with that notion, but his human qualities – both positive and negative – contributed to his legacy and accomplishments.
Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.
Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.