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Author James Hansen On 'First Man' Neil Armstrong, As Apollo 11 Hits The Big Screen

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (NASA via AP)
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (NASA via AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

The new movie “First Man” puts the Apollo 11 moon landing on the big screen. But what was Neil Armstrong, the man who took that giant leap, really like? We’ll ask NASA historian and Armstrong biographer, James Hansen.


Alissa Wilkinson, film critic for Vox. ( @alissamarie)

James Hansen, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University. Former historian for NASA. Co-producer of the new film “First Man.” Author of “ First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.”

Maria LaneOn Point listener. As a 13-year-old visiting her uncle in Oahu, Hawaii, she got a firsthand glimpse of the Apollo 11 team.

A Story From Our Listener

When  On Point listener Maria Lane heard that we were doing an hour on Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission, she reached out to share her connection to the historic moment.

At the age of 13, she was visiting her family on the Hickam Air Force Base in Oahu, Hawaii during the summer of 1969. After Apollo 11, Maria says, the astronauts touched down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii. They were picked up and then made their way — in the NASA Mobile Quarantine Facility, a streamline trailer — to the Air Force base.

The route that NASA traveled happened to run right alongside Maria’s uncle’s house. She watched as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong rode by.

Here are photos from the encounter:

More Photos

From The Reading List

Excerpt of “First Man” by James Hansen



After the Moon mission was over and the Apollo 11 astronauts were back on Earth, Buzz Aldrin remarked to Neil Armstrong, “Neil, we missed the whole thing.”

Somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people, the largest crowd ever for a space launch, gathered at Florida’s Cape Kennedy in the days leading to Wednesday, July 16, 1969. Nearly a thousand policemen, state troopers, and waterborne state conservation patrolmen struggled through the previous night to keep an estimated 350,000 cars and boats flowing on the roads and waterways. One enterprising state auto inspector leased two miles of roadside from orange growers, charging two bucks a head for viewing privileges. For $1.50 apiece, another entrepreneur sold pseudoparchment attendance certificates with simulated Old English lettering; an additional $2.95 bought a pseudo space pen.

No football tailgate party could match the summer festival preceding the first launch for a Moon landing. Spectators firing up barbecue grills, opening coolers, peering through binoculars and telescopes, testing camera angles and lenses—people filled every strand of sand, every pier and jetty.

Sweltering in 90-degree heat by midmorning, bitten up by mosquitoes, aggravated by traffic jams or premium tourist prices, the great mass of humanity waited patiently for the mammoth Saturn V to shoot Apollo 11 toward the Moon.

In the Banana River, five miles south of the launch complex, all manner of boats choked the watercourse. On a big motor cruiser owned by North American Aviation, builder of the Apollo command module, Janet Armstrong, the wife of Apollo 11’s commander, and her two boys, twelve year-old Rick and six-year-old Mark, stood nervously awaiting the launch. Fellow astronaut Dave Scott, Neil’s mate on the Gemini VIII flight in 1966, had arranged what Janet called a “numero uno spot.” Two of Janet’s friends were also on board, as were a few NASA public affairs officers and Dora Jane (Dodie) Hamblin, a journalist with exclusive coverage of the personal side of the Apollo 11 story for Life magazine.

Above them all, helicopters ferried successive groups of VIPs to reserved bleacher seating in the closest viewing stands a little more than three miles away from the launchpad. Of the nearly 20,000 on NASA’s special guest list, about one-third actually attended, including a few hundred foreign ministers, ministers of science, military attachés, and aviation officials, as well as nineteen U.S. state governors, forty mayors, and a few hundred leaders of American business and industry. Half the members of Congress were in attendance, as were a couple of Supreme Court justices. The guest list ranged from General William Westmoreland, the U.S. army chief of staff in charge of the war in Vietnam, and Johnny Carson, the star of NBC’s Tonight Show, to Leon Schachter, head of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers.

Vice President Spiro T. Agnew sat in the bleachers while President Richard M. Nixon watched on TV from the Oval Office. Originally, the White House had planned for Nixon to dine with the Apollo 11 astronauts the night before liftoff, but the plan changed after Dr. Charles Berry, the astronauts’ chief physician, was quoted in the press warning that the president might unknowingly be harboring an incipient cold. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Mike Collins thought the medical concern was absurd; twenty or thirty people—secretaries, space suit technicians, simulator technicians—were coming into daily contact.

Two thousand reporters watched the launch from the Kennedy Space Center press site. Eight hundred and twelve came from foreign countries,111 from Japan alone. A dozen were from the Soviet bloc.

Landing on the Moon was a shared global event that nearly all humankind felt transcended politics. British papers used two- and three-inch high type to herald news of the launch. In Spain, the Evening Daily Pueblo, though critical of American foreign policy, sent twenty-five contest winners on an all-expense-paid trip to Cape Kennedy. A Dutch editorialist called his country “lunar-crazy.” A Czech commentator remarked, “This is the America we love, one so totally different from the America that fights in Vietnam.” The popular German paper Bild Zeitung noted that seven of the fifty-seven Apollo supervisors were of German origin; the paper chauvinistically concluded, “12 percent of the entire Moon output is ‘made in Germany.’” Even the French considered Apollo 11 “the greatest adventure in the history of humanity.” France-Soir’s twenty-two-page supplement sold 1.5 million copies. A French journalist marveled that interest in the Moon landing was running so high “in a country whose people are so tired of politics and world affairs that they are accused of caring only about vacations and sex.” Moscow Radio led its broadcast with news of the launch. Pravda rated the scene at Cape Kennedy front-page news, captioning a picture of the Apollo 11 crew “these three courageous men.”

Not all the press was favorable. Out of Hong Kong, three Communist newspapers attacked the mission as a cover-up for the American failure to win the Vietnam War and charged that the Moon landing was an effort to “extend imperialism into space.” Others charged that the materialism of the American space program would forever ruin the wonder and beautiful ethereal qualities of the mysterious Moon, enveloped from time immemorial in legend. After human explorers violated the Moon with footprints and digging tools, who again could ever find romance in poet John Keats’s question, “What is there in thee, moon, that thou shouldst move my heart so potently?” Partaking of the technological miracle of the first telecommunications satellites launched earlier in the decade, at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, 50,000 South Koreans gathered before a wall-size television screen. A crowd of Poles filled the auditorium at the American embassy in Warsaw. Trouble with AT&T’s Intelsat III satellite over the Atlantic prevented a live telecast in Brazil (as it did in many parts of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean region), but Brazilians listened to accounts on radio and bought out special newspaper editions. Because of the Intelsat problem, a makeshift, round-the-world, west-to-east transmission caused a two-second lag in live coverage worldwide.

Shortly before liftoff, CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid described the scene to Walter Cronkite’s audience: “Walter . . . as we sit here today . . . I think the [English] language is being altered. . . . How do you say ‘high as the sky’ anymore, or ‘the sky is the limit’—what does that mean?”

Nowhere on the globe was the excitement as palpable as it was throughout the United States. In east Tennessee, tobacco farmers crowded around a pocket-size transistor in order to share the big moment. In the harbor at Biloxi, Mississippi, shrimpers waited on the wharf for word that Apollo 11 had lifted off. At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where 7:30 a.m. classes were postponed, fifty cadets hovered around one small TV set. In the twenty-four-hour casino at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the blackjack and roulette tables sat empty while gamblers stood spellbound in front of six television sets.

The multitude of eyewitnesses assembled on and around the Cape, Merritt Island, Titusville, Indian River, Cocoa Beach, Satellite Beach, Melbourne, throughout Brevard and Osceola counties, as far away as Daytona Beach and Orlando, prepared to behold one of the most awesome sights known to man. The voice of Jacksonville, Florida’s Mrs. John Yow, wife of a stockbroker, quivered as she uttered, “I’m shaky, I’m tearful. It’s the beginning of a new era in the life of man.” Charles Walker, a student from Armstrong’s own Purdue University, told a newsman from his campsite on a small inlet in Titusville, “It’s like mankind has developed fire all over again. Perhaps this will be the kindling light to put men together now.” In the VIP stands nearest the launch complex, R. Sargent Shriver, the U.S. ambassador to France who was married to Eunice Kennedy, a sister of the deceased president John Kennedy, who had committed the country to landing on the Moon, declared, “How beautiful it is! The red of the flames, the blue of the sky, the white fumes—those colors! Think of the guys in there getting thatincredible ride. Incroyable!”

CBS’s commentator Heywood Hale Broun, best known for his irreverent sports journalism, experienced the liftoff with several thousand people along Cocoa Beach, some fifteen miles south of the launchpad. He told Cronkite’s audience of tens of millions, “At a tennis match you look back and forth. On a rocket launch you just keep going up and up, your eyes going up, your hopes going up, and finally the whole crowd like some vast many-eyed crab was staring out and up and up and all very silent. There was a small ‘Aah’ when the rocket first went up, but after that it was just staring and reaching. It was the poetry of hope, if you will, unspoken but seen in the kind of concentrated gestures that people had as they reached up and up with the rocket.”

Even those who came to the launch to protest could not help but be deeply moved. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, successor to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and de facto leader of the American civil rights movement, marched with four mules and about 150 members of the Poor People’s Campaign for Hunger as close as they were allowed to get to the sprawling spaceport. “We are protesting America’s inability to choose the proper priorities,” said Hosea Williams, the SCLC’s director of political education, who claimed money spent to get to the Moon could have wiped out hunger for 31 million poor people. Nonetheless, Williams stood “in admiration of the astronauts,” just as Reverend Abernathy himself “succumbed to the awe-inspiring launch,” declaring, “I was one of the proudest Americans as I stood on this soil. I think it’s really holy ground.” “There’s so much that we have yet to do—the hunger in the world, the sickness in the world, the poverty in the world,” former president Lyndon B. Johnson told Walter Cronkite shortly after watching the launch from his bleacher seat, wife Lady Bird at his side. “We must apply some of the great talents that we’ve applied to space to all these problems, and get them done, and get them done in the spirit of what’s the greatest good for the greatest number.”

With ten minutes left on the clock, Sevareid said on-air to Cronkite, “when the van carrying the astronauts themselves went by on this roadway just now, there was a kind of hush among the people. . . . You get a feeling that people think of these men as not just superior men but different creatures. They are like people who have gone into the other world and have returned, and you sense they bear secrets that we will never entirely know, and that they will never entirely be able to explain.”

From FIRST MAN: THE LIFE OF NEIL A. ARMSTRONG by James R. Hansen. Copyright © 2018 by James R. Hansen. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Vox: “ First Man stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, a man struggling to deal with his grief” — “Midway through First Man, American astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is asked by a reporter at a press conference how he feels about the fact that, should the Apollo 11 mission be successful and he lands on the moon, he’ll go down in history.

“Armstrong can’t answer the question. He impatiently snaps that NASA and the ship’s crew plan to be successful. Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), seated by his side, eventually has to step in to talk about the crew’s great responsibility and excitement, while Armstrong stares intently into the middle distance.

“The stoicism that might have prevented a man like Armstrong, who was facing either death or a kind of immortality, from being able to articulate an answer in that moment is the heart and soul of First Man. The film is less concerned with delivering a triumphalist portrayal of the 1969 moon landing — which has been done before, we’ve all seen it — and more with probing what kind of person is able to white-knuckle through the physical, emotional, and psychological toll of this sort of mission and successfully pull it off.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.