First Man

I liked this movie a lot, although I can see why it hasn’t done well at the box office.  The movie gives us long scenes of waiting, punctuated by shorter scenes of pure terror — much like the space program itself.  But it’s not an action movie.

Perhaps the movie resonated with me personally because, during a decade that saw three political assassinations, mass demonstrations, riots and a major war, the space program was one of the few things that seemed to be going right.  The movie hits many but not all of the high and low points of the Gemini and Apollo programs, some of which I remembered, some not.  It also gives us the behind-the-scenes understanding that what they were doing was very, very risky, which was certainly not publicly acknowledged at the time.

The movie spent a lot of time trying to get the details of space flight correct.  The Gemini spacecraft really was a tin can held together by fancy baling wire.  The Apollo spacecraft was a little better — at least they had digital readouts instead of dials — but they still didn’t have Velcro.  Only 50 years on, and already those vehicles look like the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — just how nuts did you have to be to try to cross space in those things?  And te space flight scenes are shot mostly in silence, which make the shots of the approaching moon that much more impressive.

The movie wisely focuses on the character of Neil Armstrong, a guy who was both ballsy enough to test fly high-altitude planes and smart enough to learn actual rocket science.  The physics of space flight are not intuitive — in some cases the correct response to a flight problem in space is the exact opposite of the correct response in regular atmospheric flights.  It was important to have smart astronauts because a lot of times they had to figure out how to address a problem “on the fly.”  The computers at Mission Control might look impressive, but their computing power (and their speed) was less than is available in the laptop you’re reading this on right now.   And due to the limitations of satellite technology, there were long periods of time when the astronauts were out of communication range.

The flag-raising brouhaha, in retrospect, was silly.  This movie is deeply patriotic, commemorating an era when Americans did things not because they were easy, but because they were hard.  They show the flag being planted on the moon, but they don’t make a big deal of it.  The astronauts had more important things to do, like getting home.

Neil Armstrong left NASA a year after the moon landing and taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.  Famously reclusive, he wrote no memoirs, gave no motivational speeches, ran for no political office.  He left no epitaph.  This movie is it.

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