First Man

How does one read a book about Neil Armstrong, and not come away feeling inspired? And yet, this book not only details his path to the moon, but Armstrong’s path from a child who became absorbed in creating airplane models, all the way to the man in old age, who rejected celebrity for a life of learning and teaching.

I found his determination and work ethic from an early age to be an indicator of how he would address science problems his entire life. At the age of 10, he started working jobs to make money. He wanted to be an engineer, who made airplanes, but believed he needed to learn how to fly to do a good job. Flying lessons were $9 an hour. He worked and paid for his own lessons, getting his pilot licence before his driver’s license. By all accounts he was a terrible driver. This ultimately led to joining the Navy and becoming a fighter pilot in the Korean War.

Working for NACA (before it became NASA) he was a test pilot and engineer, testing the limits of the newest and best flying machines. This path led him to be the perfect candidate for the new space program. In the middle of this was a man who was a father, and husband. However, his scientific approach to solving problems of rocket propulsion didn’t help his home life, nor was it easy for others to say they truly knew Neil. Throughout the book, those that knew him spoke of his quiet nature, precise language, and intense work ethic.

Even after loosing his four-year-old daughter to a brain tumor, and multiple coworkers to plane crashes, and testing failures, Armstrong remained stoic and solid, focused on the scientific problems ahead of him. While fate and circumstance led him to be chosen to be the first man on the moon, he accepted it as the next coincidental moment in his life. And when it was over, he moved on, to be a college professor, to be an adviser, and finally later in life, learn how to focus on the people in his life, more than the questions of the universe.

Two quotes in the book struck me as particularly telling of who Neil Armstrong was:

William Dana, a NASA research pilot said, “He understood what contributed to flight condition. He had a mind that absorbed things like a sponge and a memory that remembered them like a photograph. That set him apart from mere mortals.”

And then Armstrong told his biographer, James R. Hansen, the writer of the book, “I think people should be recognized for their achievements and the value that adds to society’s progress. But it can easily be overdone. I think highly of many people and their accomplishments, but I don’t think that should be paramount over the actual achievements themselves. Celebrity shouldn’t supersede the things they’ve accomplished.”

Neil Armstrong died in 2012, several years after the publication of his biography, which has been updated to include information about his death. What would a man, who accomplished much, but never wanted praise, think of a movie, focusing on his life?

From all accounts, he approved the making of the film, and his sons Rick and Mark were not only consultants on the film detailing some family scenes not found in the book, but played roles in the Mission Control scenes.

The movie, First Man, starts off about 100 pages into the book, when Neil Armstrong is testing a plane high above the earth, reaching 100,000 feet and leaving the earth’s atmosphere. Something goes wrong, and through his quick thinking he is able to land safely, while getting a lot of flack for the trouble he did have. What is the reason the normally perfect Armstrong is having mishaps? His daughter is sick, and ultimately dies from a brain tumor. Within weeks of her death he applies to the new astronaut program, and through a vigorous process is accepted. Anytime things get too emotional in Armstrong’s world, he dives deeper into his work. The movie covers almost 10 years of Armstrong’s life over two hours, so much of the process of being accepted in the space program, and the technical, scientific contributions Armstrong made in the space program are glossed over.

Instead, the movie focuses on the emotional roller coaster Armstrong, his fellow astronauts, and his family go through as the space program tests the limits of space travel, leading up the moonwalk. As appropriate, there is the required science and technical aspects of the film. Although, those who saw the movie Apollo 13, about the aborted space mission, only two trips after Armstrong’s, will find the science and even the drama a bit downplayed.

For all it’s danger, and suspense, the movie First Man had a stillness to it that I didn’t expect. Maybe knowing Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins return to Earth safely, decreased the suspense.

Armstrong is a hero to the world, but doesn’t fit the typical Hollywood action hero type. He is not loud, aggressive, or impulsive. He is thoughtful, solemn, and stoic, making for a different kind of hero movie.

The movie is good. I highly recommend it as a personal testament of will and determination. Once you are done watching it, read the book, and learn even more about what happened before and after the moon landing. It will change your perspective on the space program, as well as the men who walked on the moon.