‘First Man’ and the History of Space [Spoiler Alert]

First Man

“’First Man’ is a movie steeped in even more space history than audiences might be aware,” according to collectSPACE.

The new movie starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, has rich visuals and gives thematic nods to the real history of NASA, from detailed recreations of spacecraft and spacesuits to the use to actual space-to-ground transcripts.

Director Damien Chazelle said,

I wanted the movie to be tactile, and documentary-like, and realistic, so it felt like we have to have the reality back up that style.

In addition to ensuring the authenticity of the film for the large set pieces and scenes, Chazelle inserted subtle references to the history of the first man on the moon. “First Man” is littered with hidden details, “easter eggs,” that possibly only the most eager space eyes will notice.

For the rest of the world, here are some of the “small steps” Chazelle and his fellow filmmakers took to infuse the move with more space history.

Spoiler Alert!

The remainder of this article contains minor and major details to the movie “First Man.” Those who have not yet seen the movie may not wish to continue reading.

Voices From the Past

Roger, Twan – Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

This line, from “First Man,” may sound familiar complete with the stumble over the word “tranquility.” These were the exact words radioed to Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin after they landed on the moon, on July 20, 1969.

There are a number of actors playing the fellow astronauts of Armstrong. This includes some of those who served in Mission Control as the capsule communicator, the crew’s point of contact with the ground. For those who were not cast, such as Bill Anders and Bruce McCandless, filmmakers decided to use the real voices of the astronauts from the archival audio.

Therefore, it is the actual Charlie Duke that audiences hear when Mission Control radios, “We copy you down, Eagle.” Duke was the CapCom during the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In the movie, Duke also reminds Armstrong (Gosling) about the total amount of fuel available before starting the descent to the surface of the moon. However, unlike the other calls, this audio is not from the archives at NASA.

Filmmakers had Duke record a few lines that were absent from the Apollo 11 record for the movie, resuming his role as CapCom nearly 50 years after the mission. This was to explain to audiences what was about to happen on screen. This were explanations missing from the Apollo 11 record.

Faces in the Crowd

Duke’s voice is not the only cameo. “First Man” is peppered with faces from the space history community. This is especially true in the depiction of Gemini Mission Control.

After their Gemini 8 spacecraft spins out of control and Armstrong (Gosling) and David Scott (Christopher Abbott) come back into radio contact, NASA’s director of flight crew operations Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) orders Paul Haney, the “Voice of Mission Control” to cut off the “squawk boxes” that fed mission audio into the astronauts’ homes.

Haney is portrayed and voiced over by Mark Armstrong, Neil’s son. Mark’s brother, Rick Armstrong, is also in Mission Control, sitting to Mark’s right.

Mark’s son, Andrew Armstrong, makes a cameo as the flight controller who is playing the guitar after Gemini 8 successfully completes the world’s first docking in space.

The cameos do not end in Mission Control.

Chazelle’s parents are among the guests at the White House reception. His sister, Anna, is the staff member who tells Armstrong that Slayton is on the phone.

During their pre-launch breakfast at the Cape, an artist is seen sketching Armstrong. In real life, the artist was the late Paul Calle. As part of NASA’s art program, he sketched the breakfast and the astronauts suiting up. In “First Man,” Chris Calle, Paul’s son and accomplished artist, portrays his father.

As Armstrong (Gosling), Aldrin (Corey Stoll), and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) exit their quarters to board a van headed for the launch pad, they walk down a ramp and pass by a gentleman in a suit. The onlooker is Kurt Debus. He was the first director of Kennedy Space Center, as portrayed in “First Man” by historian James Hansen, author of Neil Armstrong’s biography, which was the basis for the movie.

Bonnie Baer also makes a cameo appearance in this scene. She is the daughter of Ed White, Gemini 4 and Apollo 1 astronaut.

As Collins (Haas) walks past Debus (Hansen), he is carrying a brown paper bag. This reproduces a subtle detail from Apollo 11 history.

It was a tradition for the astronauts to bring gag gifts to the launch pad for the Pad Leader, Guenter Wendt (Steve Coulter). Wendt oversaw the crew being strapped into the spacecraft and the final preparations of the launch. Armstrong gifted Wendt a coupon for a free ride “between any planet, moon, star or galaxy in the solar system.” Aldrin (Stoll) gifted him with a copy of “Good News for Modern Man.” It was a condensed version of the Bible. Collins (Haas) pulled out of the brown paper bag, a fish mounted to a plague made of wood.

Collins said, “At your house, I’ve never seen a big trophy trout or trophy fish on your wall. You need one.” This quote was recalled by Wendt in a 1999 NASA interview. Collins’ gag was more than just a mounted fish: it was too small to legally keep, it had not been cleaned, and it had not been preserved.

The brown bag adds more authenticity to the scene already more than a recreation. The building the astronauts exit at the rampway are not on a movie set, it was filmed on location at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Haas said, “That’s not even acting, that was reenacting. Because those shots [of the Apollo 11 crew walkout] were world famous. Everybody has seen those, right? So we were trying to copy the same movements getting into that van.”

Other Easter Eggs

  • The opening scene where Armstrong (Gosling) lands the X-15 rocket plane was shot on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. This is not far from where the 1962 flight landed.
  • Neil and Janet Armstrong nicknamed their daughter “Muffie,” short for “Muffin.” In “First Man,” they only refer to her as her given name, Karen. However, when Armstrong (Gosling) opens his notebook to document her cancer treatment and symptoms, you can see in his writing he calls her “Muffie.”
  • At NASA’s Flight Research Center, among the papers on Armstrong’s desk is a pamphlet that describes the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). This is the same type of vehicle Armstrong (Gosling) ejects from later in the film. This is not merely foreshadowing: the real Armstrong helped to develop the LLRV as a research pilot before he became an astronaut.
  • The photograph of Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) at his wake is based on his real NASA portrait.
  • The medals that Armstrong (Gosling) and Scott (Abbott) are wearing during the Gemini 8 post-flight press conference in the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
  • The LIFE magazine Armstrong (Gosling) complains about on the phone was created for the movie. The headline reads, “Our Wild Ride in Space.” That was the real working title Armstrong and Scott objected to and had it changed. The March 25, 1966 issue ran with the revised headline, “High Tension Over the Astronauts” and the crew’s byline was absent.
  • NASA’s spaceflight safety mascot is the namesake for the Apollo 10 lunar module. They are both named Snoopy, after Charles Schultz comic strip “Peanuts” beagle. Snoopy appears in “First Man” as a toy piggy bank that Rick Armstrong (Luke Winters) clutches onto as his father playfully acts like he’s going to put him in the freezer.
  • At his home in Houston, Armstrong has a model of a Gemini spacecraft on his desk under an arch. This model is a recreation of a McDonnell Douglas contractor model that celebrated NASA’s location in St. Louis, home to the Gateway Arch.
  • On the table of the Apollo 11 pre-launch breakfast were stamped envelopes waiting for the crew to sign. These envelopes represented the “insurance covers” Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins autographed to augment their life insurance policies.
  • The Apollo command module boarded as Apollo 11 in “First Man” is the same spacecraft set piece used in the 1995 movie, “Apollo 13.”

By Jeanette Smith


collectSPACE: ‘First Man’ cameos, easter eggs add even more space history to film

Featured Image Courtesy of Kanijoman’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top Image Courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License