3 Stars – Thoughtful
Almost any American in school today knows the story of Neil Armstrong who landed on the moon in the summer of 1969. Some moments in history are frozen in the national memory and are vivid in the minds of those of us who are old enough to have lived through the experience. The early days of the space program were a direct result of the cold war when the United States was competing for global political and economic prominence against the communist nations dominated by Soviet leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev. When President Kennedy pledged in 1961 that “we would conquer space and put a man on the moon by the end of the decade”, it made for great geo-political positioning against the Soviet Union, but it was being promised without any knowledge about how it was going to happen. The Soviets had made great strides with their technical achievements by being the first to have a man circle the earth in space. America upped the ante by stating that we weren’t impressed – because we were going to the moon!
For those of us who lived through this period of history, the film First Man brings back to life the fact that we knew little about how to make good on our promises. Political strategy is often a game of bluff. America threw everyone they had into the space program, including the best aviator test pilots on their military teams. By comparison to today’s multi-national space station, these early years were built on what used to be comically characterized as “chewing gun and bailing wire.” There was no computer technology that could compute the trajectory, only math majors with slide rulers. Today in one’s hand, a Smart Phone has more computing technology than existed collectively throughout the world in 1961.
First Man begins by reminding us of how different that era was from today in that the men who became these famous astronauts were not people seeking glory. They were ordinary solders who had good skills. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was a quiet, introverted man who loved his family and had lived through the emotionally numbing experience of his young daughter’s death. He learned about his role in the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in a passing comment with one of his bosses. Little did he know that the hero worship that would come after the trip would almost destroy him, and lead him to live an almost hermit-like existence for the rest of his life.
The second reminder from this period of history was that the national tolerance for risk was far greater than anything we would accept today. Astronauts died and yet the next launch went ahead as planned 90 days later. Men were going to the moon while the top brass wrote their obituaries prior to their launch dates. Everyone was prepared for the fact that these brave souls might actually get to the moon but never be able to come back home. Maybe the fact that there wasn’t a 24-hour news cycle broadcasting constantly, kept people focused on what was happening and made the risks less personal. This was a war mentality where death was a relatively normal part of the equation.
The third difference in culture and experience was the fact that this became one of the first “global events” that made people feel that they were part of one large family on earth. When Armstrong stepped out on the moon, a billion television viewers from every corner of the world took a sigh of relief and cried with a collective sense of pride. Every point in history prior to this was viewed as interactions between tribes or nations at war, separate from the lives of others. For the first time in history, everyone on earth saw themselves as part of a worldwide event collectively at the same moment.
Between Apollo 8 in December, 1968 when the first “Earthrise” photo was viewed by mankind, and Apollo 11 in July, 1969 when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) became the first to step onto the moon, three billion people on the planet became aware of how fragile and beautiful our home actual is. Now, almost 50 years later, over seven billion people view space travel as a normal event with an ever-growing awareness of the fragility of the earth’s environment.
The real Buzz Aldrin mentioned at a dinner recently that we should be looking to colonize Mars, because we have not learned to respect and be grateful for the gift of our own planet. Maybe the greatest lesson from First Man should be that we have been entrusted with the gift and responsibility of stewardship of this miraculous place which was and is shaped with the grace and beauty of God.
When national pride compelled us to do the impossible we stepped up and put the first man on the moon. Do you believe we have the same strength to accomplish similar feats today? Explain why you answer as you do.
Do you believe the willingness to sacrifice human lives to conquer space has changed? Explain your answer?
The inability of the “first man” to step onto the moon to live with the fame caused him to become a virtual recluse. Do you think this was a simple matter of introverted personality or are there other forces at work in our nation?