spaceSpace and Physics

We Asked A NASA Historian To Weigh In On The Science Of Neil Armstrong Movie “First Man”

All systems go. Universal

Movies are not documentaries – and the Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” is no exception. That said, it’s not only amusing to dissect moments of scientific prowess and, yes, blunders, on the big screen but also educational.

To help us do this, we recruited NASA historian Bill Barry – consultant for the film, retired US Air Force pilot of KC-135 tankers, professor, and self-confessed geek of all things spaceflight.


First, a brief recap of the movie, which IFLScience had the privilege of seeing at a screening at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The film centers on Neil Armstrong’s life, based on the official biography by James Hansen. Although the movie touches on the space race between the US and the Soviet Union, it does not dwell on the external furor of the time. Instead, it delves deep into the personal life of the man who would become the first human to step on the Moon.

Stoic, brave, technical, distant – Neil Armstrong was on many accounts a tough man to get to know. The film is not a glossy foray into an astronaut’s world, but a gritty look into the loss, sacrifice, and cost it took to push new frontiers in space exploration.

Note: This Q&A contains minor spoilers.


How Accurate Is The Depiction Of NASA During This Era Of Space Exploration?

What I like is that they put the Apollo program in the context of the time. If you ask the average American about it today, they’d probably tell you that it was back in the day when America had a great space program, infinite budget, and everyone supported the space program – but none of that was true!

The popular support for the space program was never above 50 percent during the Apollo program, except the week we landed on the Moon.

Would Ryan Gosling Pass The Physical Requirements To Be An Apollo Astronaut?


I actually think he’d be too tall. For the first couple of class of astronauts, the working capsule was quite small, you had to be under 5 feet 11 inches.

Neil Armstrong was about 5’11” – none of those guys were very big. I think Ryan is a little too tall to be an astronaut back then.

How Well Is Spaceflight Portrayed In The Movie?

Well, they aren’t going to be flying through clouds at 70,000 to 90,000 feet (21,300 to 30,000 meters). There are no clouds at 90,000 feet. Literally at that altitude and moving that fast, it feels like you’re not moving at all – like in an airliner.


But you need clouds to show the thing is moving really fast. For Damien to show that it’s going at this amazing speed, he’d say we need clouds to show what’s going on. It’s a necessary element for the crowd.

The Saturn V rocket eventually launched the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. Universal

You’ve Met Janet Armstrong On A Couple Of Occasions. What Do You think Of Claire Foy’s Portrayal?

I actually spent more time with Jan Armstrong than Neil Armstrong. It was almost chilling to see Claire Foy on the screen playing her and how close she was to Jan – the toughness, the directness.

A case in point, Dr Barry provided a story of the first time they met. The conversation went something like this:


Dr Barry: “Hi, I’m Bill Barry. I’m the NASA chief historian and your escort for this event.”

Mrs Armstrong: “Where are you from?”

Dr Barry: ”The headquarters.”

Mrs Armstrong: “Oh.”


It was very clear she was very experienced with people from headquarters and it was not a very positive experience.

She’s a very tough character and she had a very tough life. It wasn’t the life she was expecting. Claire did an amazing job.

People Like To Mythologize These Heroes – How Well Does The Film Portray The Life And Times Of An Apollo Astronaut?

Another thing I think this movie does well is to tell the interior story of what happened. The typical narrative of Apollo is that you get these astronauts in shining armor – their families are perfect, everyone is happy, and they’re doing one triumph after another.


But it wasn’t easy. People paid a price. Many of [the astronauts'] friends died as test pilots or in the space program itself. Their families paid a price. How did people in that position deal with those stresses and strains?

I think the movie does a brilliant job of at least depicting how Neil Armstrong dealt with it and show he’s a human guy.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. Universal

Are There Any Nuances In The Film That It’d Take A Real Pilot Or Astronaut To Notice?

In regards to a scene where Neil Armstrong is piloting an X-15 rocket-powered aircraft.


In the first version of the script we saw, Josh put in the script that Neil was pulling back on the stick to try and extend his glide to make it on the runway. And any pilot will tell you that pulling back on the stick does not extend your glide, it actually makes you land sooner!

Most of [the errors] are little stuff like that.

Does The Film Strike The Right Balance Between Grit And Glamor?

I hope people walk away with an appreciation for the fact that it wasn’t some glorious event that happened 50 years ago. It was tough and required people to make some serious sacrifices. The environment that they were working in was just as crazy, politically, and financially messy as it is now.


First Man” will be released on October 12, 2018, in the US and UK. For more information, head on over to their website.

A Saturn V rocket, like that launched on Apollo 11, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Kristy Hamilton


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