Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in "First Man;" Neil Armstrong (Universal Pictures/Getty/NASA/Newsmakers)

Author of Neil Armstrong biography "First Man": He understood "the place of humankind in the cosmos"

James Hansen, author of the biography that spawned the Ryan Gosling film, on what he learned from Neil Armstrong


Chauncey DeVega
December 25, 2018 7:00PM (UTC)

The new film "First Man" is a thrilling and tension-filled story about the 1960s race between the Soviet Union and the United States to put a man in space and then finally on the Moon. "First Man's" narrative follows Neil Armstrong -- the enigmatic, extremely introspective, reserved, and highly disciplined astronaut who is played in the film by Ryan Gosling -- and the personal toll that surviving astronaut training and getting to the Moon took on his wife and children.

While "First Man" is a highly personal story about one man and his date with destiny, reluctant fame and immortality it also speaks to a time when the American people dared to dream big. In this way "First Man" is an antidote to the present moment, when America's vision is so limited and insular and its citizens' morale so low.

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How did Neil Armstrong navigate fame and celebrity? What was Neil Armstrong like as a person and how did Ryan Gosling learn to channel him? How did being an astronaut and the first man on the Moon impact Armstrong's perspective on life? How did "First Man" balance the huge stakes of the Cold War and the space race with a personal story about Neil Armstrong, his family, and the other NASA astronauts who tried to do what to many seemed like the impossible? What is the future of NASA and America's spaceflight program?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Dr. James Hansen, author of the bestselling Armstrong biography "First Man," which was adapted for the film (on which he served as a co-producer). Hansen is a former historian of NASA and the author of 12 books on aerospace. He has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did Neil Armstrong negotiate being a living legend? What was that like for him?

It wasn't anything that he enjoyed at all. It was very difficult. Neil was stalked by people and he also got threatening mail. At one point he was getting 10,000 letters a week. He had to call in the police a few times on people who were harassing him. Neil was the sort of person that didn't want any of that. He didn't want celebrity. He didn't want the spotlight. He tried everything he could to lead a normal life, short of being a recluse.

Although he did give talks and interviews, Neil did not respond to most media requests. He just didn't see the sense in that. He was the sort of personality that was kind of closed, a lot of compartmentalization of emotions and thoughts, and kind of hard to read. You could not get to know the real Armstrong unless you really spent a lot of time with him. Even then, there were people who worked with him for years that said, "I worked with Armstrong for eight years and I still have no idea who he is."

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When a person becomes famous, in a certain way, they belong to the world.

I don't think he ever totally accepted that. He understood it to a point, but he also felt that there should be certain limits to it, and that people should be considerate with one another -- even to someone who did the things he did. What Neil ended up doing was just making sure that he did not put himself in certain types of circumstances. For example, when he did public events he would make sure that his exposure and access was limited. Neil understood the role he played in history. He was understandably quite proud of it in his own way. But Neil did not feel like he owed the public every part of him.

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Did he ever get tired of talking about being the first man to step on the Moon?

Certainly. He did get bored talking about the Moon landing because whenever anybody talked to him that's what they wanted to talk about. But if you knew the rest of his life story and talked to him about his days as a naval aviator, or how he learned to fly and his many years as a pilot, Neil was very happy to share those stories. No one ever asked him about those stories for the most part.

There was one quote from him that was reported by the press early in the 1970s where Neil said something like, "When will people realize that I'm more than just a space man?" I was fortunate because I had so much time with him, enough to have 55 hours of tape-recorded interviews. So I could ask him about many aspects of his life and not have to rush to the Moon landing.

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I have seen "First Man" several times in the theater. After each viewing I kept thinking, when did America stop dreaming big? How did the United States become so insular?

The movie is almost like a Rorschach test, because people are taking so many different meanings from it.

Apparently, there are some people who are saying that "First Man" is somehow anti-American because "First Man" does not show the planting of the flag. I kind of understand that in a sense, because some people would assume that the movie is going to basically be the Apollo 11 story and it's really not.

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It's Neil's personal journey, so when we get him to the Moon, what we have to do with him is to resolve the personal journey. In doing that the movie shows some things about Neil that many people may not know or expect. The movie was not going to show the iconic things that everybody knows.

At the New Yorker, Richard Brody argued that the movie is a right-wing delusion because it is somehow promoting old nostalgic ideas about white America. I have tried to step back and be dispassionate about it all, and not to be frustrated by things that are people are projecting on to the movie that we didn't intend.

I talked with director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer. We never had a political discussion. All we ever thought about was Neil's story and how accurate and powerful we could make that in "First Man."

How did seeing the movie make you feel?

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Well, the last scene of the movie is really what I left with. The ambivalence of the relationship of Armstrong and his wife. What does that last scene mean? Have they found some resolution in their relationship and their family? Is Neil back? Is he going to be engaging with the family in ways now that he didn't before? Is the dropping of his daughter's bracelet in the crater a metaphorical release for his grief? Is he a different man?

"First Man" is not a movie where you get a standing ovation at the end of it. The film has a darker, more ambivalent kind of ending where the viewer is not sure what's happened with Neil's relationship. You're kind of vexed by it all, just as they were themselves, I think, at the time.

If "First Man" had ended with the landing and the ascent stage of the lunar module heading back into orbit then I think you might very well have had more people in a state of awe, asking themselves, "Why haven't we done this again?"  But again, ultimately the political context of the Moon landing is probably way down on the list of things that Chazelle was interested in depicting, beyond providing some necessary context. .

The  juxtaposition of Gil Scott-Heron performing "Whitey on the Moon" with  the scenes of NASA and all the preparation for spaceflight was so powerful. The history of spaceflight is the history of all Americans. Never mind how poignant it was to see a photo of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., who was America's first black astronaut, actually shown in the movie. He died during a training flight.

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The movie "Hidden Figures" is very relevant here. My career started as a NASA historian back in the 1980s and my very first book was a history of Langley Research Center, which is where "Hidden Figures" takes place. That is the laboratory where the "human computers" -- the women who did the data processing and analysis, including the segregated group of African-American women -- were working. I wrote about it at length in my first book. I actually did a lengthy video interview with the women who were featured in "Hidden Figures" as well as the other "human computers" back in 1982.

"Hidden Figures" wasn't an unknown story to me at all. I loved the movie. There were lots of things that were factually inaccurate about it, but I didn't care because I thought the movie was so important. I even had some in the media trying to contact me, wanting me to comment on the accuracy of "Hidden Figures," and I chose not to do it.

In "First Man" we tried to do whatever we could to show the diversity of the people working on the Moon landing and space program. But as a historical matter most of the people involved were white men. For example, look at Mission Control and these were all young white guys. There really weren't too many African-Americans that we could show in "First Man." If there was a way for us to show greater racial diversity in the movie we would have done it. But it was not going to be just some token appearance but something significant. But if you are focusing on Neil's own story, there's no way to do it properly.

What types of people was NASA looking for? Was there a particular profile for the astronauts?

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When the manned space program -- what we now call "human spaceflight" -- started during the Eisenhower administration, they really weren't sure what sort of people might be needed for spaceflight. They didn't automatically go to test pilots. The thinking was, "Maybe these people need to be acrobats?" There was no consensus yet on whether the astronauts would need to be flyers, because there was some thought that the spacecraft could be so totally automated and you really didn't need pilots. The people in NASA pretty quickly came to the realization that military test pilots would be the best people.

Engineering backgrounds were not emphasized too much for the first class of astronauts. But by the time Neil came around for the second class -- which was selected in September 1962 -- engineering degrees were really central.

Ultimately it was both the flying background and the engineering background that really became crucial qualifications. Later in the program, they opened it up even more to include geologists.

But NASA really wanted an engineering research pilot basically being the astronaut.

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What was the psychological profile? A test pilot or an astronaut has to be extremely confident in his abilities and judgment.

Neil certainly had a lot of confidence in himself. He wouldn't have become a pilot and actually gotten his pilot's license on his 16th birthday if that were not the case. Neil rented an airplane when he was still just 16 and flew it to West Lafayette, Indiana, from Dayton, Ohio. How many kids are going to have the confidence to go do that? He's flying on and off aircraft carriers when he's 19, and he's the youngest members of his fighter squadron in Korea at 20. He's quite a bit younger than most of the other pilots.

Failure analysis is crucial to engineering. Engineers don't stick their head in the sand and pretend that there are no possibilities of failure. They know there's failure all around them and their job is to try to obviate or reduce the possibility of failure as best they can. When you've got someone like Armstrong in a cockpit of an airplane or a spacecraft, he knows the almost infinite possibilities of failure. He knows how to handle it if something does go wrong. Neil and the other astronauts have the best procedures in place to confront the prospects of death because of mechanical failure. I think Neil and the other astronauts were just really good. But they are just human beings, which is why I think the whole concept of "the right stuff" is very problematic.

How would you compare "The Right Stuff" to "First Man"?

Both "The Right Stuff" the movie and Tom Wolfe's book refer to Chuck Yeager as being the person with the real "right stuff" to be an astronaut. He's the one that doesn't go. I don't believe that Yeager was really the person with the real right stuff. He was a certain type of test pilot who was out to set records. Yeager didn't necessarily fly the procedures that his superiors wanted him to fly. He didn't have a college degree. He never studied engineering. Pilots like Yeager do not really contribute to the progress of knowledge about flight. By comparison, Neil Armstrong was the real right stuff.

It was an engineering research pilot in the cockpit, who knew the systems, who was flying very precisely and doing exactly what the engineers on the ground wanted him to do, who had the real right stuff. When you're flying not to break records but to get data, and knowledge about the performance of the airplane, that is what matters the most.

Neil and Yeager crossed paths out at Edwards [Air Force Base, in California]. Neil was still a test pilot and neither had much respect for one another. Neil was not the type of person to say negative things about anybody, but he once said to me, without my tape recorder running, that Chuck Yeager was the worst test pilot he ever knew. That was a really strong statement coming from Armstrong.

How did Neil Armstrong manage that transition from war to peace?

That's a great question. I don't think I've ever really been asked that one before. I think one thing that made it a bit easier for Neil to transition was that he was on a Navy scholarship. That's how he got to college and after two years of school the Navy called him up to send him to training in Pensacola to become an aviator. That's when the Korean conflict broke out. Neil had to interrupt his college education for two years while he went and became a naval combat flyer. Then when Neil was done with that he went back to school for his junior and senior years of college. His grades improved. He was a much more serious student.

He was taking aircraft design courses but he wanted to keep flying. Neil learned that he could be an engineering research pilot, and that just seemed to match up with his interests perfectly.

Here is a story about Neil that is not widely known. Neil told how he was doing a very early morning patrol over Korea with just a couple of other planes. They were in a really spread out formation and Neil came over the ridge of this mountain and down below him were hundreds, maybe a few thousand North Korean soldiers who were doing morning calisthenics. Of course, the instinct is to just open up your machine guns and kill as many enemies as you can. Neil chose not to do it.

What Neil told me was that he thought they were having a tough enough morning just doing all their exercises. That became more poignant to me in a couple of ways. One, I found a letter from his mother, who was a very devout evangelical Christian, where she told him, "Please don't kill anybody unnecessarily." He in a sense made a promise to his mother about that.

When I heard this story from Neil I called a number of his squadron mates. I asked them, "Have you ever heard that story?" And they had never heard it. I then said, "Well, do you believe it's true?" They said, "Yes, absolutely. We believe that story is true." I said, "Well, what would you have done in similar circumstances?" They said, "Kill as many of them as possible." Neil was a military aviator, but he was not a killer,

How do we understand his humanistic vision and life philosophy?

I think Neil had some really profound ideas in that regard, which he expressed in some of his writing. He wrote a piece for Life magazine just before Apollo 11 that I quote in my book. He told me about it: "You know, the earth itself is a spacecraft. I mean, it's an odd kind of spacecraft since it carries its crew on the outside instead of on the inside. It's a pretty small spacecraft in terms of thinking about it in a cosmic sense. It's cruising in an orbit around the sun. It's cruising in an orbit around the center of a galaxy that's cruising in some unknown orbit in some unknown direction."

I think this whole concept of the Earth itself as a type of spacecraft really is a very profound thought, because the truth is that we are in space. Everything about the Earth in space-related. We are on this spacecraft and we better take care of it. That was Neil's message too. We better take care of our craft or it's going to go dead and we're not going to be on the spacecraft anymore. It's not going to be sustainable and so we better take care of it.

How did Ryan Gosling channel Neil Armstrong?  

I had lots of conversations with Ryan during the movie shoot. He had read my book, that was pretty clear. I made sure that he met Neil's boys, Neil's sister and some of Neil's boyhood friends. He could channel various people in terms of what they had to say about Neil. He told me, "Jim, if there's ever any dialogue or anything that you want to say to me, just come to me directly and let me know." Ryan and I had some really thoughtful lunch conversations about how he was doing the role.

There were certain scenes where I thought the dialogue wasn't quite appropriate for Neil, or Neil would not have done a certain thing, and Ryan was a great listener. He wanted to hear what I had to say. There were times, maybe I was just sort of projecting too much, but Ryan reminded me of Neil and just who he really was. He was quiet. He was careful in how he was expressing himself, and like Neil, he did not seem to have a big ego. You had to get a lot of reaction from his face and his body language, not necessarily from what he was saying to you.

I think Ryan was the perfect actor to play Neil.

How hard would it be to reboot the American manned space program, given the loss of institutional memory to time?

Part of the mandate for the creation of NASA was to report to the public their activities, which meant that there was a very active history program. That's what got my career started after I left graduate school. Long interviews were transcribed and most of these are available on the internet.

But again, no matter how fancy your oral history can be, or how many historians you have at work, there are still all kinds of stories that slip through the cracks. Documents that you think would be kept by archivists were discarded for whatever reason. So in terms of just rebuilding the Saturn V rocket, you probably couldn't.

Of course, even as successful as the Saturn V was, it is 1950s technology in terms of fundamentals. You probably wouldn't want to do it exactly the same way, given all the computing power available now. But at the same time, just because there is all this increased computing power does not necessarily mean you're going to have something in the end that's more effective. Moreover, lots has been lost in terms of how  engineering students are so reliant on their computers now. They don't do back-of-the-envelope calculations the way the engineers did back then. The way they approach drafting is very different too.

There's no way we can duplicate what we had in the past with the space program. And we shouldn't even try. We have got to make sure that what we have today is good and works together in an organic kind of way. It is almost magical when it all comes together. There is nothing automatic about it.

What are the major challenges with going back to the Moon and then to Mars?

The biggest problem with a Mars mission is radiation. Given the amount of time it takes to get to Mars the radiation exposure is going to be significant. That issue has not been resolved.

Trips to the Moon are so much shorter than Mars. With the Moon there are different ways to do it. The United States will go back to the Moon and I think that will happen relatively soon. I think more than any technological challenge is the question of cost. It is going to be a very expensive proposition and there will have to be a serious commitment by America's elected officials and other leaders, and the public, to make it happen.

How does the privatization of space complicate space travel and America's role in it?

I know that Neil Armstrong was not against privatization, but he felt that retiring the space shuttle without having an alternative ready to take astronauts to the space station was not a good idea. He also was concerned that corporations with a profit motive would undermine the safety culture that NASA built up over decades. Space flight is a very risky business.

And even with that deep concern about safety there is still great danger and human costs. I think it's going to be some kind of a hybrid of government and private interests that move space exploration forward. There are also going to be more international missions for sure. There are possibilities of greatness in human space exploration and there is virtue in the glory. But there are also a lot of dark things about humankind in our history, and to think that moving off into space that we're not going to bring those things with us is naive and foolish.

What did you learn from Neil Armstrong? What did he mean to you personally?

The goal wasn't to become Neil's friend. I needed to keep a certain distance as a scholar because there may be some challenging things about his life that I would have to bring up honestly. But after the book was done I got a complement from Neil which was, "Jim, you wrote exactly the book you told me you were trying to write." This was a great compliment coming from Neil given how many people had tried to deceive or manipulate him after he became the "first man."

I learned to think more in the long range. Neil was the type of person who looked beyond just his immediate circumstances. This was true both personally, nationally, and internationally. Neil had a bigger sense of himself. Neil did not think of himself in isolation. He did have an appreciation of the place of humankind in the cosmos. I think I benefited from being around a person who had that kind of perspective.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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