Neil Armstrong’s stoic nature and personal challenges are at the center of Damien Chazelle’s new film First Man, in which Ryan Gosling portrays the legendary moon walker. As Armstrong, Gosling brings out the astronaut’s quiet side — one that his contemporaries couldn’t help but notice. A 1969 profile of the Apollo 11 crew in TIME calls Armstrong “tight-lipped and phlegmatic” as well as “an inscrutable loner.”
His wife Janet told LIFE at the time: “Silence is a Neil Armstrong answer. The word no is an argument.”
But beneath the quiet surface, Armstrong had a certain something that left him particularly qualified to make history.
As TIME noted in 1969, Armstrong, at first a civilian test pilot for NASA, did not initially have any intention of becoming an astronaut. But as other pilots were brought into the space program, he changed his mind. He was chosen to be an astronaut in 1962. And yet, in some ways, it was as if he had been preparing all his life:
The audience knows how Armstrong’s NASA story ends, but Chazelle imbues First Man with enough tension to make one remember that space travel, even when successful, is a pretty stressful process.
Prior to joining Apollo 11, Armstrong had some near misses as a pilot and proved himself capable of dealing with them. “As a civilian test pilot in 1962, he plummeted uncontrollably toward earth when the rocket engine in his X-15 failed to start, but it caught on just in time. As commander of Gemini 8 in 1966, he had to abort the scheduled three-day flight after ten hours when a short circuit threw the spacecraft’s thrusters out of control. Last summer he had to eject from a lunar-landing research vehicle at an altitude of only 100 ft. when it spun out of control and crashed,” TIME detailed.
The mission to the moon itself was also incredibly dangerous. TIME’s 1969 coverage of the moon landing noted the dangers of the flight:
Of course, as everyone now knows, the spacecraft was able to leave the moon and return to Earth without major issue. The moon landing was immediately hailed by TIME as a “stunning scientific and intellectual accomplishment for a creature who, in the space of a few million years — an instant in evolutionary chronology — emerged from primeval forests to hurl himself at the stars.”
It was an achievement that bowled over even the most reserved of people, including Armstrong, whose reputation for being quiet preceded him. As TIME put it, “Even the taciturn Armstrong could not contain his excitement” once he got there: