Interview: James R. Hansen, Author of the Neil Armstrong Book “First Man”

Posted on October 28, 2018 at 4:27 pm

Courtesy James R. Hansen
James R. Hansen wrote the book that inspired “First Man,” the new Ryan Gosling movie about Neil Amstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and I had the great pleasure of talking to him about the time he spent with Armstrong and his family, what he learned from the biodata NASA kept on the astronauts during their journey, and what he thinks about the film’s depiction of Armstrong leaving something very meaningful on the moon before he returned safely to earth.

Where were you when you watched the moon landing?

I was on the floor in front of our television set, back in the day when television sets were these console units where the exterior was built into the TV. I was right in front of the TV set on the floor, in Fort Wayne, Indiana between my junior and senior year of high school. I was taking the college aptitude test that summer, working at a golf course mowing grass. I think I watched every minute. I think I was there probably from noon until midnight, so probably 12 straight hours of watching the coverage of Apollo.

So you grew up with the space program.

I was a second grader when Alan Shepherd flew the first space flight. We went down into the gym and took off our shoes and they had a big boxy TV right at the mid-court circle of the basketball court. That flight was just a sub-orbital flight that lasted maybe 15 minutes but I remember very clearly where I was on the floor. There was just something about the age and the era and the promotion of space exploration that grabbed a lot of people. I didn’t do a whole lot between the launches or between the missions but when it did happen I usually found my way to a TV set one way or the other.

One thing that will surprise people when they see the movie is that the space capsule is so small and vulnerable. Is that the way that Neil described it to you?

The vision of the director, Damien Chazelle, was to make the experience immersive for all of the movie viewers and to make it very visceral as well and so I think as a result there’s an emphasis on the sound. If you recall just the shutting of the hatches and everything, it’s almost like they’re being entombed in these things. At one point I went to the museum with Neil where the Gemini VIII spacecraft was still located. The Gemini in particular is just for two men. It’s just such a small space. The Apollo was rather roomy in comparison. I don’t think I did in my book as much as what Damien does in the film to communicate the almost claustrophobic aspects of being in these capsules and so I think the audience will experience this in a way that is in a lot of ways different than it’s been portrayed in earlier movies where you don’t experience the sounds and the vibrations. Damien went out of his way to try to put the viewer in to see it through Neil’s eyes, to feel it in a very direct kind of way, and I think that’s one of the really incredible things about the film.

What made Neil the right guy for that job?

In terms of his general training and experience for astronaut selection, here is a guy that had flown as a test pilot virtually every advanced experimental flying machine that the country was testing between 1956 and the time he became an astronaut in 1962. He was in fact in the second group of astronauts, which was an incredible group with James Lovell and John Young and Frank Borman and Ed White. Neil was the only one who had any experience for flying a rocket-powered airplane, the X-15, which is shown in the very first scene of the film. In terms of him becoming the commander of Apollo 11, one thing I try to do in a lot of my lectures is make clear that there was nothing preordained about him being the one selected. The approach to putting teams together the key was choosing good commanders and he had a feeling deep down that any of the commanders could have done any of the missions.

So Neil always made sure people understood that his opportunity to command Apollo 11 was really a matter of contingent circumstances. He was in the right place in terms of the order of the rotation. Still, he was really an outstanding person to end up doing it — I don’t think there’s any question about that. He had had the major problem with the Gemini VIII flight. There was some second-guessing about it, but in the end everybody felt like he and Dave Scott had handled that emergency extremely well under unbelievable pressure. So I think all of that’s relevant. On one hand it is important to make clear that he was really well trained and a good person to do this particular mission, on the other hand there were other good men as well that probably could have done it as well as he and I think the other commanders could have done the missions.

What is it that makes someone able to stay calm under that kind of pressure?

One thing that the movie can’t show that the book can and does is that in the movie we only see Neil in three flights, in three flying machines; he’s in the X-15, he’s in the Gemini VIII and he’s in Apollo. The guy made hundreds of flights in hundreds of different machines and he’d been flying since he was 16 years old, so he had experienced so many different flying machines and experiences in airplanes and there have been tough challenging moments in a lot of those flights. He flew 78 combat missions over North Korea and had half of his wing clipped off in one of them and he had to eject from the plane.

If you fly that many times, you are going to run into problems and things that are not working quite right. So the one thing that you can’t communicate in the film is that this guy has been in these things hundreds and hundreds of times. They’re engineers and test pilots in the plane so they really know the systems as well so that is an element that sort of explains their confidence in what they’re doing.

He was calm, but we know from the telemetry data that Neil’s heart rate was one of the highest if not the highest heart rates in almost all those flights and I talked to Neil about it. Neil’s own take on it was that if you really see when his heart rate peaked, it was always when he was in anticipation of some high-performance moment that he was going to have to execute. So really his take was that it wasn’t a representation of stress or anxiety about the flaw but just the body and the mind together getting ready for something that was going to have to be done out of the ordinary. He does have other instances of high heart rates too when he was over at Little West Crater during his lunar EVA. He had to get over to Little West Crater and get back to the lunar module pretty quickly because that wasn’t really a scheduled thing for him to do and there wasn’t much time and mission control was kind of nagging him to get back to the lunar module. When he was over at the crater his heart rate was over 180. Again it’s a question of how you interpret that, but I’ve always been a little bit reluctant to describe him as this cold, calm, collected person what nothing unnerves when a man is running such a high heart rate at the same time.

The movie focuses quite a bit on the way that Neil dealt with the death of his daughter. What did he tell you about it?

Typically of Neil, it was hard to get him to talk about it. I probably got him to talk about it more than anybody else ever had. As the movie makes it clear, he didn’t even talk to Janet about it and Janet told me the same thing. He just would not talk about it and Janet needed him to talk about it. She needed a husband that was comforting and supporting and she needed to be able to express her own grief. That’s one of the really sad things in their relationship and I think the movie captures that in some beautiful ways, especially that last scene. I got most of my information about the effect of the death on Neil from Neil’s sister June and from Janet because they observed it first-hand. June, who really loves her brother, was very understanding and she told me stories about in the aftermath of the death, stories that reinforced for her what a special love Neil had for that little girl and how it affected him not only in the immediate aftermath of the death but in her eyes how he never got over it.

The line when he responds to a question in his interview for the astronaut program in the movie comes from my book. I asked, “Did this affect your flying in any way?” and he said, “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it would have no effect.” That’s just classic Armstrong speak. It’s an answer but it’s not terribly direct.

He didn’t really bring her baby bracelet to the moon and leave it there, did he?

There’s certainly no evidence that he did. The thing is there’s also no complete evidence that he didn’t. We don’t know what he took to the lunar surface because the manifest of the contents of his PPK (the personal property kit) where they took personal items has never been seen. Neil apparently had it. I asked him if I could look at it and he was going to try to find it and never found it and the boys don’t have it and Purdue University archives doesn’t have it so we don’t know where it is and even if we do find the manifest was what he took/the personal items that he took if something was really, really private he wouldn’t have necessarily even listed it.

Another part of this is that the visit over to the Little West Crater was not scheduled. It was not part of the mission plan. He just decided to go over and do that himself and what he did over there we really don’t know for sure because the TV Camera wasn’t on him at that point in time so it was a completely private moment. Sometimes the power of poetry prevails over the uncertainty of fact. I’m okay with it because there’s just enough degree of uncertainty about this that it’s not necessarily counterfactual, we just don’t know for sure.

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First Man

Posted on October 11, 2018 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters injured and killed, sad death of a child
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 21, 2019

Copyright Universal 2018
On September 12, 1962, nine months after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy issued a daunting challenge to America, already behind the Soviet Union in the space race. He promised to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade so that the first trip to space would not be “governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.” He said,

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The extraordinary story of the space race that followed has been covered by many books and movies. But none have taken us so literally inside the trip to the moon like “First Man.” Ryan Gosling, working with his “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, plays Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Gosling is one of the few actors who could bring such humanity to the famously reserved Armstrong. Chazelle wisely spends much of the movie focusing on Gosling’s face, and he conveys infinite courage, integrity, and dedication, and more. Armstrong did not talk about the tragic loss of his toddler daughter to cancer. When he is asked about whether it affected him in his interview for the space program, he answers calmly that it would be impossible not to be affected. But we see so much in the way he touches her hair, and in the way he thinks of her in an important moment near the end of the film.

When we think of space travel, we tend to think of spacious flying machines like the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, with sleeping chambers and holodecks and chess games. This movie takes us inside the actual space capsule, all built with practical (real-life) effects, not CGI and it’s as though they launched a metal container the size of a car trunk with an atom-bomb-fueled catapult, in a process that shakes it up like a paint can at the hardware store. We can feel the pressure on the screws as they jiggle and threaten to pop. And we hear — wow, the sound design in this film, from Ai-Ling Lee — the hum, the rattle, the breathing. Armstrong is always strong, contained, and capable, but this movie gives us the intimacy and vulnerability around him. One of the film’s most powerful scenes is the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew. A small puff of smoke through the hatch is more telling than a special effects inferno.

We see the modest simplicity of the Armstrong’s home as well, slightly more comfortable once they are in the space program and living near the other astronauts. Claire Foy is outstanding as Janet Armstrong, a very traditional mid-century suburban wife but in her own way as honest and determined as her husband. She insists that he sit down with their sons before the moon voyage to answer their questions about the dangers he was facing.

There are a number of nice touches that remind us of some of the other work that was going on. The interviews touch on the selection process shown in “The Right Stuff.” Kyle Chandler as astronaut chief Deke Slayton draws an illustration that takes two blackboards, an indicator of the unprecedented calculations shown in “Hidden Figures.” The calm, analytical response to unexpected peril reminds us of “Apollo 13.” It is not so much, as in that film, that failure is not an option. What Armstrong says in this film is, “We fail here so we will not fail there.”

“First Man” puts us inside one of the greatest explorations in human history, respecting the technical achievements and the breathtaking scope of the vision, but always keeping it real and personal. Archival footage of people reminding us that many Americans thought that the money for the space program would be better spent in solving the problems at home remind us that arguments about priorities have been around as long as people have had impossible dreams. And this movie reminds us that sometimes impossible dreams should be a priority, too.

Parents should know that this film includes severe risk and peril with characters injured and killed, a very sad death of a child, disturbing images, some strong language, smoking, and drinking.

Family discussion: What made Neil Armstrong the right man for this mission? What do we learn by the way he responds to danger? Why did he bring something special to leave on the moon?

If you like this, try; “Apollo 13,” “The Dish,” and the excellent HBO series produced by Tom Hanks, “From the Earth to the Moon

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Get Ready for “First Man” With These Moon Shot Movies

Posted on October 5, 2018 at 1:09 pm

Copyright 2018 Amblin Entertainment

“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling have teamed up again for “First Man,” the story of Neil Amstrong and the 1969 Apollo 11 voyage to the moon. Get ready for space travel with these outstanding fact-based films — they are not only true stories; they are some of my very favorites:

Hidden Figures One group of braniacs figured out how to build the rocket, another figured out how to create the fuel necessary to make the almost half a million mile round trip. And a whole other group had to figure out how to hit the target, so that fully fueled rocket ship would not bypass the moon and go hurtling off into the universe. The remarkable story of the math people, including brilliant black women, is told in this warm-hearted and inspiring film.

The Dish Another story of the unsung heroes of the space race is this utterly charming film about the Australian crew who ran the satellite dish that allowed the footage of the moon landing to be shown around the world.

The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe’s ground-breaking book about the earliest days of the space program, including the selection of the first group of astronauts is the source for this film, written and directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Quaid, Pamela Reed, and Sam Shepard.

Apollo 13 Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Ed Harris star in the gripping story of a flight to the moon that went terribly wrong. “Failure is not an option,” said Flight Director Gene Kranz. Even though we know they came home safely, the film will keep you on the edge of your seat.

In the Shadow of the Moon This British documentary about the history of the Apollo program with archival footage and interviews with people who made it happen.

From the Earth to the Moon This brilliant miniseries from “Apollo 13” star and space geek Tom Hanks looks at the space program from many different angles, including the press, the government contractors, and the wives of the astronauts. The last episode is a poignant parallel story that includes the making of Georges Melies’ classic of the same name.

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Based on a true story For Your Netflix Queue Lists

Happy Anniversary of the First Moon Landing

Posted on July 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm

45 years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, a powerful reminder of what is possible if we put no limits on our goals “for all mankind.”  I hope we never lose that sense of endless possibility, boundless curiosity, and the determination and courage to carry it through.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keoF8YmTjWg

For more about the moon landing, I recommend For All Mankind, and what I consider the finest miniseries ever produced in America, Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon.

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Based on a true story Documentary Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families

Tribute: Neil Armstrong

Posted on August 25, 2012 at 6:31 pm

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” -Neil Armstrong’s family statement

You can also watch the magnificent documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.

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