Our story today is as close to traveling through time and space as we can without a single mention of the Doctor. That’s because today we’re going to travel back in time to discuss the true story of Neil Armstrong as we saw in the movie First Man.
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- Apollo 11 Mission Overview
- Apollo 11 Video Library
- Apollo 11 Flight Journal – Day 1, part 1: Launch
- [RAW VIDEO] Neil Armstrong’s 1968 Test Crash – YouTube
- May 25, 1961: JFK’s Moon Shot Speech to Congress
- Apollo 1
- Apollo 1 (AS-204) | National Air and Space Museum
- Apollo 1
- Apollo 1: The Fatal Fire
- First Up? | Air & Space Museum
- Where are Neil Armstrong’s Children and What Are They Doing Now?
- ‘First Man’ shows Neil Armstrong mourning his daughter on the moon. But did that really happen?
- Did Neil Armstrong Really Leave His Daughter’s Bracelet On the Moon as ‘First Man’ Depicts?
- Did ‘First Man’s Emotional Final Scene On the Moon Really Happen?
- ‘First Man’ Fact Check: Did Neil Armstrong Really Leave That Bracelet on the Moon?
- X-15 Rocket Plane & Crew Had the Right Stuff
- Neil Armstrong’s Longest Landing
- Home | Armstrong Museum
- X-15 Flight Log NASA
- X-15 Pilot Robert White Dies
- NASA Dryden X-15 Photo Collection
- The untold story of how Neil Armstrong chose Purdue
- Before the Moon: the early exploits of Neil Armstrong
- Neil Armstrong’s X-15 flight over Pasadena
- Neil Armstrong and the X-15
- X-15 First Flight: The Perspective of History
- ‘One Small Step for Man’: Was Neil Armstrong Misquoted?
- ‘First Man’ cameos, easter eggs add even more space history to film | collectSPACE
- Project Apollo: A Selective Bibliography of Books
- First Man (2018) – IMDb
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
The movie opens focused on Ryan Gosling’s version of Neil Armstrong. Of course, we can’t really see that it’s him yet.
Neil is wearing what looks like a space suit. It’s a very loud and bumpy—not really a nice, leisurely flight. But then again, the view outside isn’t quite what you’d normally see on a nice, leisurely flight.
The event we’re seeing here to open up the movie actually did happen, but before we get to that let’s learn a bit about Neil Armstrong’s life up until this point because I felt that was something missing from the movie.
Neil Armstrong was born on August 5th, 1930 in the small town of Wapakoneta in Ohio. That’s about 76 miles, or 122 kilometers, to the west of Columbus, Ohio and 60 miles, or 100 kilometers, to the east of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Today, you can find the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta.
His family stayed in Ohio through World War II, but in 1945, Neil was one of thousands of fans in Columbus watching the home state Ohio State Buckeyes get defeated 35-13 by the visiting Purdue Boilermakers.
As the story goes, it was that game that convinced a young Neil Armstrong to change his college plans from MIT to Purdue.
After graduating from Purdue University in Indiana, Neil Armstrong joined the U.S. Navy. That’s not too surprising, though, when you consider that his college was paid for by the Navy as part of the Holloway Plan—a program named after Rear Admiral James Holloway in the post-World War II U.S. military that partnered with colleges to provide education for future officers.
The way that program worked was you did two years of college, then you’d do two years of flight training followed by one year of service in the Navy as an aviator, and finally go back to college to finish the last two years of your degree. That was the deal to get the Navy to pay for your college, and that’s the deal Neil agreed to.
He started college in 1947 when he was only 17 years old. Two years later, in 1949, Neil reported to his flight training in the U.S. Navy. It only took about a year, but on August 23rd, 1950, Neil Armstrong graduated training and became a full-fledged naval aviator.
Of course, as a fan of history, you might have an idea of what else was going on around this time. Just a few months before Neil Armstrong’s graduation, on June 25th, 1950, the United Nations officially condemned the North Korean government’s actions as they invaded South Korea. That kicked off the United States’s involvement in the Korean War.
Neil Armstrong flew a total of 78 missions during the Korean War with his final being in March of 1952, not long after the stalemate of the Korean War started but before the July 1953 signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement that brought a ceasefire.
It was after the war that Neil returned to Purdue to finish out his degree. The next few years would significantly change Neil’s life. He graduated from Purdue in 1955. That’s where he met Janet Shearon. The two were married on January 28th, 1956.
Between his graduation in 1955 and marrying Janet in 1956, though, Neil got a job in Cleveland, Ohio as a test pilot for the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. He had applied to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics—NACA, who was the predecessor for NASA—but they didn’t have any positions open right away. Eventually they did, though, and by the time the summer of 1955 rolled around, Neil was working at NACA as an experimental test pilot.
Back in the movie, we’re still inside Neil Armstrong’s cockpit in that opening sequence of the film. The camera cuts to a shaky view outside the windows of the aircraft we can see that Neil is piloting. He’s just above the clouds. Pulling back on the stick, Neil forces the plane higher. We can see the numbers on the altimeter climbing as the plane continues to shake and groan under the strain.
Then, all of a sudden—it’s quiet.
The blue sky outside turns black and we can see the curve of the earth reflecting off Neil’s visor. We can see his pen floating.
Neil grabs the pen and jots something down on the notepad in his lap. Over the radio, we can hear a man on the other end. He states Neil is at 140,000 feet, time to begin the descent.
The number on the altimeter starts going down. Fast. 139,000, 138,000, 137,000, 136,000…
Then, something goes wrong. Somewhere around 115,000 feet, the numbers stop falling. They start going back up. 116,000, 117,000, 120,000…over the radio, we hear ground control tell him that he’s bouncing off the atmosphere.
Through some stellar piloting and a little help from a jet burst from the top of the wing, Neil manages to break through and continue his descent back to earth.
Once he lands, we can see the full plane from the outside for the first time. We also get a date for the first time: 1961.
Now, if you recall, Neil Armstrong started his career as a test pilot years before 1961. So, as you can probably guess, this flight we see at the beginning of the movie wasn’t the first test flight Neil Armstrong did. In fact, it wasn’t the first flight in that same aircraft we see in the movie, the X-15.
He flew the X-15 a total of seven times, the first time being in 1960. And it’s interesting the movie says it’s 1961 because it was actually on April 20th, 1962 during Neil Armstrong’s sixth flight of the X-15 that he bounced off the atmosphere of the earth like we see in the movie.
He also didn’t peak out at 140,000 feet above the earth like the movie implies. Neil’s X-15 reached a height of 207,590 feet that day. That’s just over 39 miles high or about 63,250 meters and 63 kilometers.
Fortunately, the X-15 aircraft was designed to go that high. It had control systems he could use that would work outside the earth’s atmosphere. One thing the movie doesn’t mention is that a part of Neil’s mission that day was to test a new G-limiting device called the MH-96. The idea for the MH-96 was to limit the amount of G-forces the plane would encounter.
While the X-15 started its descent, Neil purposely kept the nose of the aircraft pointed up so he could try to hit the 5 G limit and let the MH-96 kick in.
But, it never kicked in. Finally, ground control told him that he’d gone too far—he was getting too close to the massively populated area around Los Angeles. If something went wrong and caused the plane to crash, no one wanted it to happen around L.A.
So, Neil began his descent back toward earth for as long as it took until the normal avionics worked upon entering the atmosphere again. When they did, he turned around and went back to the dry lakebed landing zone where he was supposed to land.
In all, that flight lasted about 12 and a half minutes and saw Neil’s X-15 hitting a max speed of 3,739 MPH or Mach 5.31. That’s over 6,000 km/h, or over five times the speed of sound.
And as amazing as that is, that wasn’t the highest or fastest that the X-15 went. About three months after Neil’s flight that saw him bouncing off the atmosphere with a max altitude of 207,590 feet, Major Robert White took the X-15 up to 314,750 feet or almost 60 miles up—almost 96 kilometers.
For the record, the U.S. Air Force at the time considered space to be 50 miles up, or about 80 kilometers.
So that means Major White’s flight on July 17th, 1962 made him both the first person to fly at Mach 6 as well as the first person to fly a winged vehicle into space.
Back in the movie’s timeline, we cut to the Armstrong’s home. Neil is patting his young daughter’s back while she vomits into a pail of some sort. As she cries, Neil comforts her and plays with her to calm her down. She responds by lying her head on his shoulder, sucking her thumb and just enjoying being close to her dad.
You can tell she’s a daddy’s girl and he’s been totally absorbed by her.
From a brief cut away to what looks like paperwork, we can tell her name is Karen Armstrong. There are a few other clues about what’s going on just by looking at the paperwork, too. For one, it’s from a place called Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital. Secondly, along the headline we can see something about cobalt therapy.
The camera cuts to Neil alone in his study. He’s on the phone talking about a procedure as he looks over more handwritten notes on his desk in front of him. The notes mention a radiation session, side effects and more.
There’s one sweet scene with Neil sitting alongside his daughter’s bedside. He’s watching over her—playing with her hair as she’s sleeping. It’s one of those times that, as a father, you can recall for years to come. To take a mental photograph of that moment.
In the next scene, it’s heartbreak for the Armstrong family. Neil and his wife Janet, who is played by Claire Foy, are adorned in black. A small boy stands by his parents as they watch a casket being lowered into the earth. Neil’s hands are fiddling with a bracelet—the same bracelet we saw Karen wearing in the scene just before this one.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what it was like in real life, but unfortunately this plot point is true.
Karen Armstrong was born on April 13th, 1959. Neil called her “Muffie” — a shortened version of “Muffin.” When she was just a toddler in 1961, Karen was playing at a park when she fell. Immediately, Neil and Janet knew something was wrong when they saw blood coming out of her nose and her eyes didn’t seem to be focusing on things properly.
At the hospital, the doctors ran some tests and that’s when they found out Karen had a malignant tumor growing on her brain stem. The next few months had to have been a living hell for Neil and Janet as they and the doctors that treated Karen tried their best to treat the young child.
Unfortunately, the tumor proved to be inoperable.
I’m reminded of the words of King Theoden from Lord of the Rings: “No parent should have to bury their child.”
In January of 1962, that’s exactly what Neil and Janet Armstrong faced. Karen’s cause of death was pneumonia, something her little body wasn’t strong enough to fight because of the tumor and probably the treatments the doctors were using to try to fight the tumor. She died on January 28th, only a few months away from her third birthday.
While we’ll never know exactly what it was like for Neil and Janet to bury their baby girl that cold, winter’s day, we do know the movie was correct in showing that they had another child. Eric was born in 1957, making him just five years old as he had to cope with the loss of his baby sister.
Then, in 1963, Neil and Janet had another son—Mark. But that’s getting a bit ahead of our story.
Back in the movie, in the wake of the tragedy, Neil throws himself into work. He’s back at his desk almost immediately. His supervisor, no doubt worried about his focus, tells Neil that his next flight has been canceled. Instead, he’s told to focus on writing up the report from his last flight.
In other words, he’s grounded.
Frustrated, Neil looks at the paperwork strew across his desk. Hidden beneath a typed memo is a paper that catches Neil’s eye. All we can see is a headline that reads:
NASA TO SELECT ASTRONAUTS FOR PROJECT GEMINI
And while it’s really hard to see, when I paused the movie I’m pretty certain the paper is dated April 27th, 1962 with the location of Edwards, California named as well.
Of course, the movie’s details here are highly dramatized but the basic gist is true. There are some things that don’t get documented in history—for example, the thoughts going through Neil and Janet Armstrong’s mind in the wake of little Karen’s death.
What we do know is that the date on the newspaper being in April of 1962 is correct. That’s when NASA first announced they were taking applications for a group of astronauts to join Project Gemini.
And as a quick side note, I found it interesting that in the movie they pronounce it Gemini (GEM-IN-EE) while I’ve always heard it pronounced Gemini (GEM-IN-EYE)—maybe because I grew up near the Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio and they have a rollercoaster called the Gemini. But hey, pronunciations are a dime a dozen—everyone pronounces things different and everyone always insists their pronunciation is the correct one.
That should never be something we let distract us from the story.
Speaking of which, something the movie doesn’t mention was the significance of this round of applicants. This wasn’t the first time NASA put out a call for astronauts. However, it was the first time that NASA opened up the applications to civilians.
Prior to April of 1962, the only people who could apply to be an astronaut were military test pilots. The reason for that simply had to do with security clearances—military test pilots already had security clearance. Civilians did not.
Even though Neil Armstrong had spent time in the Navy, at this point in his career he was a civilian test pilot. That meant he couldn’t apply—at least, not until April of 1962.
And, just like the movie shows, Neil Armstrong did apply.
Although, the movie doesn’t really mention that Neil Armstrong’s application nearly didn’t make the cut. You see, Neil Armstrong didn’t actually manage to get his application in until the second week of June in 1962. The deadline was June 1st.
Fortunately, though, one of the guys that Neil worked with at Edwards Air Force Base noticed his application and—without anyone’s knowledge at the time—added it to the pile of applicants.
In the movie’s next scene, we can see Neil sitting down in a hallway alongside others interviewing for Project Gemini. There’s at least six on screen that I can see…most of them in military uniforms, but Neil and one other man are in suits. They’re the only two civilians applying—at least in this scene. He introduces himself to Neil as Elliot. Text on screen tells us it’s at Ellington Air Force Base. They’re selecting astronauts for Project Gemini.
The date given on screen is August 13th, 1962.
That is true, although it’s worth pointing out that the date of August 13th doesn’t indicate when Neil Armstrong officially became an astronaut. While I couldn’t find anything in my research to say that Neil was sitting in the hallway at Ellington on August 13th like we see in the movie, what we do know from history is that it was one month later, on September 13th, 1962, when Neil Armstrong received the phone call from NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, Deke Slayton, to let him know he was one of nine men who were now officially NASA’s second group of astronauts.
Neil was one of two civilians in the group. The other was someone we saw sitting in the hallway in the movie with Ryan Gosling’s version of Neil Armstrong—a man by the name of Elliot See.
And as a quick refresher, Deke Slayton is played by Kyle Chandler while Elliot See is played by Patrick Fugit.
Back in the movie, after joining Project Gemini, Neil moves his family to Houston, Texas so he can be closer to other astronaut families and the Space Center in Houston.
At home, Neil and Janet Armstrong have another baby boy. His name is Mark, giving the two happy parents two happy boys. At work, Neil is part of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviets. The U.S. is falling behind the Soviets at every turn.
Just after Neil is tasked with being the commander of Gemini 8, he’s given more tragic news. This time it’s the friend he made in the hallway earlier in the movie, Elliot See. He and another pilot named Charles Bassett are killed in an airplane crash.
The movie does a pretty good job of sticking to these plot points that actually happened here.
We already talked about the Armstrong’s new baby boy, Mark. As we learned earlier, Mark was born on April 8th, 1963. And as a fun little bit of trivia, Mark Armstrong lent his talents to the movie as he played Paul Haney who, in turn, was NASA’s public affairs officer and the voice of the Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s.
Even though we haven’t mentioned it yet, the reference in the movie where the American astronauts are watching the Soviets make new strides in space-related technology was also true. This back-and-forth between the Americans and Soviets in the post-World War II decades of the 1950s and 1960s is what we now know as the Space Race.
Basically, both countries were pushing to try and be the first—the first flight in space, the first manned flight in space, the first to the moon, the first to land on the moon…every first was a celebration by one side and a defeat by the other.
But our story today is focused on Neil Armstrong, and he was just one of the many people involved in the Space Race. So, if you want to take a step back and learn more about that overall then check out Based on a True Story episode #75 where we covered the epic film The Right Stuff.
That brings us to Elliot See and Charles Bassett. In the movie, they’re killed before ever going into space. Sadly, that’s true.
It was on February 28th, 1966 when Elliot See was piloting a T-38 jet near St. Louis, Missouri with his Gemini 9 crewmate, Charles Bassett. We don’t know exactly what happened in the cockpit, but according to the official report after the investigation it was determined the crash was caused by pilot error.
It probably didn’t help that it was foggy with a mixture of rain and snow, either.
As a result of this tragic loss of life, the personnel for the Gemini missions were changed. Gemini 9 launched in June of 1966 and since Elliot and Charles died in the plane crash, they were replaced by the backup crew of Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan.
Meanwhile, the crew planned for Gemini 10 became the new backup crew for Gemini 9. That’d be Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin. Basically, each crew moved up one—and while we’ll never know for sure what would’ve happened if the T-38 hadn’t crashed that February day, it’s also very likely that Buzz Aldrin may not have been slotted for the Apollo 11 mission or maybe even that Jim Lovell may not have been on the Apollo 13 mission.
Which makes you wonder how those missions would’ve been altered. History as we know it today might have been very different.
Going back to the movie, there’s no time to mourn the loss of a friend.
Neil and another astronaut named David Scott take off in Gemini 8. Everything seems to go well until…well, until they don’t. As the movie shows, things start to go wrong after Gemini 8 docks with the Agena Target Vehicle.
That’s when, according to the movie, Neil and Scott’s craft starts to rotate faster and faster out of control. In a moment of what has to be extreme stress, Neil and Scott are cool under pressure. They manage to get control of the craft but are forced to abort the mission.
That’s true, but there’s more to the story. For example, if you’re like me when you first saw this part of the movie you might be thinking, What is the Agena Target Vehicle?
The movie doesn’t do a very good job of explaining what this is—and to be fair, it’s not like the movie is supposed to explain all the technology behind what’s going on in the story.
Since the government likes to turn everything into acronyms, the Agena Target Vehicle is also known as ATV. That’s what I’ll call it from now on.
The purpose behind the ATV was to be a place where the astronauts could practice maneuvers in outer space. Remember, the overall goal established in President Kennedy’s famous speech was to land someone on the moon and return safely to earth. To do that, there had to be incremental steps taken. Part of that meant the ability to dock multiple crafts in outer space—for example, the Lunar Module, or LM, portion of the Apollo spacecraft that would have to dock and undock from the Command and Service Module, or CSM.
So, as part of the Gemini missions, first they had to figure out the logistics of things like docking between two crafts in outer space. That’s where an unmanned vehicle like the ATV came into play.
For the purpose of our story today, this is relevant to the Gemini 8 flight. The ATV had been launched into space about five months earlier, originally for the Gemini 6 flight. However, they weren’t able to complete a docking since there was a mechanical failure that forced the mission be rescheduled.
Just like the movie shows, for Gemini 8 the crew consisted of David Scott as pilot and Neil Armstrong as command pilot. This marked the first space flight for both astronauts.
There were two primary objectives for the Gemini 8 mission. First, they were supposed to dock with the ATV a total of four times—the very first space dockings in the history of mankind.
The second objective was centered around David Scott, who was supposed to do a spacewalk. That’s not walking on the moon, but rather what NASA called an extra-vehicular activity—or EVA. This EVA would take David Scott outside of the Gemini vehicle to retrieve something from the front of the vehicle. The purpose of this wasn’t as a critical part of the mission, but rather as practice to learn more about the logistics of doing a spacewalk. This would’ve been the first since June of 1965.
However, you’ll notice I said it “would’ve been” — that’s because it didn’t happen. We didn’t see it in the movie, and, in this case, the movie was correct to omit it.
That’s because, simply put, things don’t always go according to plan.
Leading up to docking with the ATV, everything seemed alright. A little over 3 hours into the mission, the two astronauts had visual contact with the ATV orbiting the earth. It took another hour or so to get within a range of about 150 feet away from the ATV. That’s a little less than 50 meters.
From this distance, they spent the next half hour or so doing a thorough inspection of the ATV. After the visual inspection and approval from ground control that the ATV was in good condition, they lined up to dock.
It only took a few minutes from there to complete the dock with a satisfying “click” and a green light indicator on the dashboard.
Once docked, the ATV had an automated program began to run and rotated both the ATV and the Gemini vehicle together 90 degrees. As fate would have it, around this time a known radio blackout was about to start. The astronauts were now out of range of communications with the ground.
When the rolling began, the two astronauts tried to stop it using the Orbit Attitude and Maneuvering System, or OAMS. Since you can’t expect a normal airplane’s control systems to work in space—the flaps on the wings or alerions, jet engines themselves and so on. The OAMS were 16 different thrusters on the Gemini that allowed the pilots to control the craft’s rotation and movements in space.
These are what Neil Armstrong and David Scott used to stop the rotation once they docked with the ATV. And it worked…at first.
Before long, the rotation began again. Neil noticed that the OAMS fuel was only about 30%, so he thought maybe there was a problem with the Gemini. So, instead of using the OAMS to stop the rotation, the astronauts decided to undock from the ATV so they could basically take a step back and figure out what was going on.
Except, this caused an even bigger problem. With the ATV and Gemini together, the mass of the connected crafts was much larger than when they were separated. So, after the astronauts managed to undock with a burst of thrusters to back the Gemini away from the ATV, the Gemini started to rotate even more violently.
And by violently…I mean violently. Records indicate their rate of rotation was some 296 degrees per second!
Under these extreme conditions, Neil Armstrong kept a cool head. He turned off the OAMS and instead used the thrusters from the Re-entry Control System, or RCS. The reason for this was because of the location of the thrusters. The RCS thrusters were located on the Gemini craft’s nose.
And it worked.
The rotation slowed…then stopped.
Around this time the communications blackout was over. The Gemini was back in range and let ground control know what had happened. They ran some more tests to figure out what had happened, doing short controlled bursts with each OAMS thruster. One at a time they tested them until they found out one of the thrusters—number 8—was stuck on. That’s why the rotation kept getting faster and faster after they undocked from the ATV.
With the near-disaster resolved, now the astronauts found themselves facing a new problem. To stop the spin, Neil Armstrong used the RCS thrusters. Those were for reentry and now they only had 25% of their fuel left.
The rest of the mission had to be aborted with the two astronauts performing an emergency reentry. Gemini 8 was planned to be a three-day mission. It ended up lasting 10 hours, 41 minutes and 26 seconds.
Back in the movie, tragedy strikes someone close to Neil yet again. This time, Neil is at the White House trying to convince the politicians that NASA’s transition from Project Gemini to the Apollo program is a good idea. Set their minds at ease, you might say.
Back at the launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the three astronauts preparing for the first Apollo mission are running some preflight tests. According to the movie, the date was January 27th, 1967 when Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were inside the command module as a fire kills all three astronauts.
Hearing the news on the phone, Neil is crushed—as is the wine glass that he was holding in his hand. It’s a horrible tragedy and, unfortunately, it’s one that actually happened.
The date in the movie is correct, too. January 27th, 1967. At the time, the mission was known as Apollo 204 or AS-204. The name was changed to Apollo 1 in the wake of the disaster.
At 1:00 PM local time at Cape Kennedy in Florida, Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom entered the AS-204 capsule on Pad 34 to run some routine pre-launch tests. The launch itself wasn’t scheduled until the following month on February 21st.
Oh, and as a little side note, today that location is known as Cape Canaveral. But, in the decade between 1963 and 1973 it was Cape Kennedy.
Their purpose that Friday was to run through what was known as a “plugs-out” test. In other words, they’d run through the entire countdown sequence from inside the AS-204 Command Module mounted on top of the Saturn rocket just like if it were the real thing. The key difference being that the rocket had no fuel in it, so it wasn’t going to take off.
In the movie, we see there’s a problem with the communications between the astronauts in the Command Module and ground control. That happened, but the movie speeds up the timeline a bit. By that, what I mean is that the communication problem wasn’t the first hint that something was off.
Almost as soon as Gus Grissom got into the Command Module, he made a comment that there was a “sour smell” once he hooked up his suit to the craft’s oxygen supply.
The astronauts took the time to delay the pre-launch test while they investigated. But, they must not have found anything because soon after Gus made the decision to move forward with the test.
Soon after that, another problem arose when the master alarm went off inside the Command Module. The alarm was due to high oxygen flow and yet again the countdown was delayed while they tried to figure it out.
Working with the team on the ground, they eventually decided the alarm must’ve been triggered because the crew inside the Command Module was moving around too much.
Only after these issues delayed the countdown did the communication problem occur. That was at 5:40 PM, so over four hours after they entered the Command Module.
The movie even got the line we hear Shea Whigham’s version of Gus Grissom say correct. The real Gus Grissom complained about the lack of communication by saying, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?”
He said that at 6:30 PM, after almost an hour of no communication with ground control had delayed the countdown yet again. One minute later, at 6:31 PM, the voltage in AC bus #2 surged. Of course, no one knew it at the time, but in the investigation afterward this surge is pointed to as the start of a possible short-circuit in the system.
Seconds after the record of the surge in voltage, the cockpit recorder caught one of the astronauts say something that no one wanted to hear. We don’t know for sure which of the three astronauts it was, but NASA’s official description of the event indicate it was probably Roger Chaffee.
“Flames!” the voice said.
Ed White’s voice was next to be recorded only two seconds later, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.”
A few seconds later, Roger Chaffee spoke again, “We have a bad fire!”
In all, from that first warning of flames in the cockpit to the last communication—17 seconds.
According to NASA’s report on the tragedy, the astronauts didn’t have a chance. The Command Module’s hatch was held closed by two things: The interior pressure of the Command Module was higher than the atmosphere outside, which kept the hatch shut. There were also latches, each of them requiring a ratchet to tighten or loosen.
With the difference in pressure, the fastest they could’ve opened the hatch would be a minimum of 90 seconds. Not only that, but the hatch opened inward making it tough to open from the inside anyway.
In the movie, we don’t see anyone outside the Command Module as the fire takes place. And while that’s sort of true, it’s not like everyone left them alone. Remember, they were already trying to figure out the communication problem. Three minutes after the fire started, there were men on the other side trying to open the hatch. Two minutes later, it was opened.
Five minutes had passed since the fire started. It was already too late. Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom perished within the first 30 seconds of the fire.
Heading back to the movie, we see another date on screen. 1968. Neil’s own life is nearly snuffed out when he’s testing a very strange-looking Lunar Landing Research Vehicle. The craft spirals out of control and Neil has just a fraction of a second to pull the cord to eject from the doomed craft.
There’s a massive explosion, but Neil’s chute manages to whisk him away to safety. That was a close call. Too close. Despite this near-death experience, Kyle Chandler’s character, the chief, Deke Slayton, tells Neil that he’s been chosen to command the next Apollo mission—Apollo 11. Not only that, but Apollo 11 is the first mission with a goal of landing on the moon.
That all happened, but the movie really speeds up the timeline here.
The near-death crash happened on May 6th, 1968. When I first saw the movie, I thought it looked like he was flying the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle over farmland.
However, if you watch the actual footage of the accident you can see it takes place over an air strip. Of course, I’ll have a link to see the video on the post for this episode over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
About 100 feet above the ground—that’s about 30 meters—the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle started to bank too dangerously. Neil Armstrong ejected from the craft and managed to parachute safely to the ground as the craft burst into a ball of flames nearby.
According to an after-accident report, it was determined that he would have died if he ejected half a second later.
The crew for Apollo 11 was officially selected about eight months after Neil’s crash in January of 1969. The launch was scheduled for six months later on July 16th.
Just like the movie shows, the three astronauts assigned to Apollo 11 were Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module pilot Mike Collins.
Speaking of the movie, back in the film it’s time for the Apollo 11 mission. We see the three astronauts. Of course, Neil Armstrong is played by Ryan Gosling. Mike Collins is played by Lukas Haas while Buzz Aldrin is played by Corey Stoll.
Once they get close to the moon, it’s Buzz and Neil who head into the Lunar Module, or LM for short, to prepare for landing. Mike stays behind.
This is when things start to go awry. As they’re nearing the landing site, Buzz points out that the rocks are the size of cars. They’re way too big—we can’t land here!
Neil takes over manual control and pilots the craft over the designated landing site with only 3% fuel left. There were only seconds left until they would have to force abort the mission so close to the moon.
Then, they land. After a moment of pause in the quiet that followed moments of panic and blaring alarms, Ryan Gosling’s version of Neil Armstrong tells the command center back on earth, “Houston. Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”
That really was something Neil Armstrong said, although he wasn’t trying to wax poetic. Eagle was the name of the Lunar Module for Apollo 11.
Apollo 11 launched at 9:32 AM on July 16th. Over four days later, at 4:17 PM on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong said those words to let ground control know they had landed on the moon at a location known as the Sea of Tranquility.
They were officially the first humans to ever land on the moon. Since then, it’s a phrase has been repeated time and again.
Back in the movie, moments after landing, we see something we’ve all seen from the historical footage.
Real quick, though, the movie speeds up the timeline again here. By that, what I mean is that the movie makes it seem like Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module pretty quickly after landing.
However, according to NASA’s official documents on the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong reported the Eagle has landed at 4:17 PM and 40 seconds on July 20th, 1969. Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon took place at 10:56 PM and 15 seconds on July 20th.
Both of those times are in Eastern Daylight Time. If you want to hear more about this, I’ve got a supplemental episode I’ll be releasing on the Producer’s Feed to go along with this that’ll have some of the official mission profiles of Apollo 11 from NASA.
According to the movie, at the foot of the ladder Neil tells Houston that the LM footbeds are depressed into the surface about one or two inches…actually, let me stop real quick. If you’ll notice when you’re watching the movie here, the voice talking about the LM footbeds and what the surface of the moon looked like—that voice doesn’t sound like Ryan Gosling.
That’s because the filmmakers used the real archival audio as a backdrop for the visuals they created. So, let’s have the real Neil Armstrong take it from here:
It’s worth pointing out that even though everyone knows that saying today, that’s not exactly what Neil Armstrong said. In an interview soon after the Apollo 11 mission returned home, Neil explained that he actually said, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The word “a” wasn’t heard over the transmission. While that might seem an incredibly small detail, for such a popular quote the omission of the word “a” can change the meaning. Neil wasn’t talking about “man” in some abstract sense. He was talking about how it was a small step for a man—himself—but a giant leap for mankind overall.
Back in the movie, at the very end of the Apollo 11 mission, we see Ryan Gosling’s version of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon with the bracelet that his daughter, Karen, was wearing at the beginning of the film. It’s the same bracelet he was holding onto so tightly at her funeral.
With tears in his eyes, Neil looks out at the earth across the void of space and drops the bracelet into the crater near their landing craft.
That…well, the truth is that we don’t know if that’s true or not.
What we do know is that, like everything else on the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had objectives they were supposed to do on the surface of the moon.
They took photographs.
They performed experiments, like studying the lunar soil and its properties.
They set up equipment for experiments to be conducted from earth, like the seismic equipment that could be monitored on earth to help get a better idea of the internal structure of the moon.
They collected samples, including soil and 50 rocks totaling a weight of about 50 pounds or 22 kilograms.
They left a few things, too. Of course, there’s the American flag. The movie doesn’t show that, but the astronauts set up a 3-foot by 5-foot American flag. They also left a plaque that said:
Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon July 1969 A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind
They even called then-President Richard Nixon from the moon. Overall, the two astronauts were on the surface of the moon for a total of two hours and 31 minutes.
The kicker here is that, for about 11 minutes of that time, Neil Armstrong deviated from the experiments and sample-taking. For that time he did some exploring of his own. No one knows what he did.
There’s a great article I’d recommend you read on The Wrap by Beatrice Verhoeven that dives into this in more depth. Neil never seemed to tell anyone that he did, but that article suggests that some folks close to Neil started to get the idea over the years that maybe he did leave something personal behind on the moon. One of those people was biographer Jim Hansen who wrote the book that the movie is based on and spent plenty of time with Neil Armstrong to do so.
Did he leave something behind? Maybe the bracelet of his little girl, Karen?
The truth is, we just don’t know.
But I’d like to think the movie got it right. I’d like to think that even the accomplishment of being the first man on the moon wasn’t enough to overshadow a father’s love for his daughter.